Parents project dissatisfaction with their own body image on their children

  • Date 20 January 2021
  • Category Cohorts

A study by ISPUP evaluated the level of satisfaction of a group of parents regarding their children´s silhouette and found that they preferred that girls had a slimmer silhouette more often compared to boys. Researchers also found that parents who were dissatisfied with their own body image also tended to be more dissatisfied with their children’s silhouette. However, 3/4 of those who had overweight children were satisfied with their children’s silhouette.

“Studying the parents’ level of satisfaction with their children’s silhouette deserves our attention, given the consequences that a possible discontent can have on the child’s mental and physical health, namely, low self-esteem, eating disorders, dissatisfaction with their own weight, depressive symptoms, among many other problems”, explains Sarah Warkentin, first author of the investigation, coordinated by Andreia Oliveira.

“Bearing in mind that this negative impact is not only felt in childhood, but also extends throughout adolescence and adulthood, it is important to address this issue as a public health problem”, she says.

Considering this framework, ISPUP researchers assessed the level of parents’ dissatisfaction with their children’s silhouette, exploring the determinants for such discontent.

The participants

The investigation, published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, involved the participation of fathers, mothers and children who are part of the longitudinal cohort study Generation XXI.

The study included 4,930 mothers and 1,840 fathers who assessed the silhouette of their children at the age of seven. Parents were asked to look at a set of silhouettes with different body sizes and to select their child’s current silhouette (according to their perception) and to also indicate the silhouette they wanted for theit child. Parents’ perception of their own silhouette was also assessed.

The children’s weight and height were analyzed, and several factors that may be associated with parents’ dissatisfaction with the children’s silhouette were explored.

The perception of parents and the real silhouette of children

36% of mothers and 31% of fathers who had normal weight children wanted a larger silhouette for their children.

In turn, 74% of parents whose children were overweight were satisfied with their children’s silhouette.

“These results are surprising. We realized that parents are unable to perceive their children are overweight or realize that their growth curve deviates from normal.Parents of children with normal weight would prefer their children to have a larger silhouette, while parents of children who are already are satisfied with their children’s body image”, points out Sarah Warkentin.

Parental preferences and child’s gender

Researchers found that mothers were almost three times more dissatisfied with their daughters’ body image than fathers. There was a clear preference for girls with a thinner silhouette, both on the part of mothers and fathers. When it comes to boys, both mothers and fathers preferred boys with a fuller figure.

These choices may be related to “the ideal thin body idealized in our society for girls and the desirability of boys to have a stronger body”, she notes.

The influence of the mother’s age and education

The study also showed that younger mothers (less than 30 years old) and less educated (less than 12 years old) wanted larger silhouettes for their children, regardless of whether they were boys or girls.

“We think that this result may be related to the lack of knowledge about child health among these women, as well as to the existing belief, among individuals from lower socioeconomic levels, that a child is healthier when they are heavier”.

In the investigation, mothers who had children with low birth weight were found to be more likely to want a larger silhouette for children, which “is in line with other studies and demonstrated a greater concern with children’s weight gain, during childhood”.

And do parents dissatisfied with their own silhouette also reveal greater discontent with their children’s body image? The answer is yes!

Both parents who preferred a different silhouette from the one they had (either thinner or fuller) showed greater dissatisfaction with their children’s body image.

Public Health Message

For the ISPUP researcher, the various observed results reveal the importance of planning interventions with specific groups of parents, in order to create a favorable environment for the child to build an adequate and healthy body image.

According to the evidence found in the article, interventions should focus particularly on parents who are satisfied with their children’s overweight, younger and less educated mothers, on parents of girls, and on all parents who are dissatisfied with their own silhouette.

The investigation, entitled Parents ’perceptions and dissatisfaction with child silhouette: associated factors among 7 year old children of the Generation XXI birth cohort, also included the participation of the researcher Ana Henriques, and is available HERE.

This study was supported through FEDER from the Operational Programme Factors of Competitiveness–COMPETE and through national funding from the Foundation for Science and Technology–FCT (Portuguese Ministry of Education
and Science) under the projects “Appetite regulation and obesity in childhood: a comprehensive approach towards understanding genetic and behavioural infuences” (POCI-01-0145-FEDER-030334; PTDC/SAU-EPI/30334/2017); “Appetite and adiposity–evidence for geneenvironment interplay in children” (IF/01350/2015).

Image: Unsplash/@renebbernal

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