Mental Health Awareness Week 2019: Body Image

I was delighted when Kate Moxley asked me to contribute an article for mental Health Awareness Week 13-19 May 2019, especially as the theme this year is ‘Body Image’. For those of us in the early childhood sector, body image can become about promoting positive images, positive language and so on, but in my recent PSED book, I explored other angles too.

I am delighted that Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd., have kindly agreed to allow us to share the following excerpt from my book (and see the end of this article for a discount code too).

Body Image, Body Consciousness, Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem?

I acknowledge that there are two sides to every debate, and the discussions [about events in early years settings] are no exception. However, I cannot find any grounded research or theory that says that these types of events are a good thing for young children. The positive comments around graduations [and other, similar events], for example, tend to be around the topics of ‘what harm does it do?’ or ‘they look very cute’ or ‘the children were so proud’ or ‘I love looking back at the photos’.

However, put these into the context of nurturing PSED, as well as understanding neuroscience and behaviours, and do these comments still ring true? In terms of does it do any harm, well, maybe not ‘actual harm’, but children who have other influences going on in their lives may well find these situations very difficult.

The comments of ‘looking cute’ is a personal opinion, what one person finds cute another may not. The concern is that confidence and esteem issues are affecting children at a younger and younger age. So, the questions perhaps need to be, what messages does implying that ‘being cute’ is important, send to children? Are these the messages we would want for children? Do events such as these help, or indeed hinder, children’s self-confidence and self-esteem?

The summer of 2016 saw a new report publish alarming findings. The whole platform of media and social media outlets was horrified, the 31 August 2016 saw collectively outraged headlines from around the world:

Children as young as three have body image issues, while four-year-olds know how to lose weight. (Telegraph)

The children as young as THREE with body issues: Nearly a third of nursery staff have heard youngsters describe themselves as fat or ugly. (Daily Mail)

Well Here’s the Most Depressing Possible Study About Body Image. (New York Magazine, The Cut)

These, and other headlines, and the debates on social media, arose from research conducted by PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years). Dr Jacqueline Harding, an Advisor to PACEY highlighted:

‘By the age of three or four some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look,’ she said. ‘There is also research evidence to suggest that some 4-year-olds are aware of strategies as to how to lose weight.’ (PACEY 2016b)

I am not simply saying that any/all events will affect every child’s self-confidence and body image. What I am saying is that some children are already worried about how they look, are already constantly told that ‘being cute, pretty or handsome’ is important, and are already under pressure to always look ‘neat, tidy and perfect’ and so on. Therefore, maybe we need to consider, do these types of events strengthen those messages? I am sure you have friends, family or colleagues who, as adults, struggle with esteem and confidence, and have negative body issues, and I am sure that many of them will be able to state how these issues go back to childhood.

In the end, you need to consider your own experience, consider the research and theory and make your own mind up regarding how you feel. Your thoughts on this topic, how you feel about this discussion and your own research will all influence your practice. All I ask is that we remember that very young children are in the middle of all of this, and how they feel about this may not be how we feel. In terms of the above discussions, there are also a range of other celebrations and events, that are often held with all well-meaning intentions. It may well be that as a result of your reflections here, you may decide to consider some of the other events in your calendar.

The reasons mentioned for liking graduation ceremonies also included the keepsake photograph. However, there is also another ‘event’ linked to capturing a moment in a child’s journey: photograph day. Intended to be a reminder of a child’s journey through their childhood years, but in reality, often a day filled with tears, anxiety, apprehension and panics about paint, food, clothes, hair, smiles and so on. ‘Oh no,’ I hear you say, ‘now Debbie is going to say we shouldn’t do a photograph day either’.

No, I am not… I am simply going to ask you to consider a few questions, to help you reflect on your practice, and then make your own decisions.

Reflective Practice Exercise: Photograph Day

• What are the stresses and pressures:
» for you? for parents? for children? – Why do you think that is?

• Why do you hold photograph days? What are the reasons?

• What are the benefits of the day:
» for you? for parents? for children?
In all honesty, capturing moments of any description, whether photos of graduation ceremonies or otherwise, can be a fraught business, but surely in any quality setting there would be a myriad of photographs which could be used more appropriately as keepsakes for parents and loved ones?

Do these more natural ‘snapshots’ more realistically and honestly reflect the child’s true personality? In addition, wouldn’t these types of photographs truly show a child’s confidence, esteem and character? Think about children you know and love, would you rather see natural shots, full of laughter and fun, that truly reflect the children, or ‘staged’ ‘controlled’ photographs, with forced un-natural smiles?

So, please don’t think I am kill-joy, I love a celebration, but Mental Health Awareness Week gives us opportunity to consider these, (if we are being honest), often very stressful events, from a range of angles… And to ask ourselves with all honesty, are they conducive to mental wellbeing (of staff, parents and children) and do they help promote positive body image?


Adapted from: Garvey, D. (2018) ‘Nurturing Personal, Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood’ London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd (p.138-142)

(Debbie Garvey – May 2019) Twitter : @stoneg8training If you have enjoyed this excerpt, and would be interested in knowing more, I am delighted that Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd., are offering a 10% discount on my current books – until 31st May 2019 – use Code Y19.

Look for Debbie Garvey:


Early Education (2012) Development Matters in the EYFS. London: Early Education.

Garvey, D. (2018) ‘Nurturing Personal, Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood’ London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd

PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years). (2016a) Body Confidence.

PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years). (2016b) Children as Young as Three Unhappy with their Bodies.

June, L. (2016) Well Here’s the Most Depressing Possible Study About Body Image.

Pickles, K. (2016) The Children as Young as THREE with Body Issues.

Willgress, L. (2016) Children as Young as Three have Body Image Issues While Four Years Olds Know How to Lose Weight, Study Finds.

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