Children’s perceived and ideal body images: social marketing implications

  • Simone PettigrewEmail author
  • Melanie Pescud
  • Robert J. Donovan
Original Article


This study investigated children’s perceived and ideal body images according to the four weight categories of underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese. The aim was to provide insight into how the issue of child obesity can be raised with families to promote healthier behaviours while minimising unintended negative outcomes. The sample comprised 355 low and medium SES children, aged seven to 10 years. Perceived overweight and obesity was low, supporting the contention that many children are unaware of their actual levels of adiposity. More than 70% of respondents aspired to an underweight body image and thus had unrealistic and inappropriate body shape preferences. This outcome highlights the danger of triggering eating disorders by increasing weight concerns when raising awareness of child obesity in social marketing campaigns. The study results suggest that parents rather than children should be the primary focus of communications relating to child obesity and, where children are targeted, an important objective should be to prevent the internalization of a thin ideal.


Body image Body weight Children Parents Intervention design 


  1. Altabe M, Thompson JK (1996) Body image: a cognitive self-schema construct. Cogn Ther Res 20(2):171–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2004) Experimental estimates and projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 1991 to 2009. Cat. No. 3238.0 CanberraGoogle Scholar
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005) The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Cat no. 4704.0 CanberraGoogle Scholar
  4. Baur L (2002) Child and adolescent obesity in the 21st Century: an Australian perspective. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 11(Suppl):S524–S528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bulik CM, Wade TD, Heath AC, Martin NG, Stunkard AJ, Eaves LJ (2001) Relating body mass index to figural stimuli: population-based normative data for Caucasians. Int J Obes 25:1517–1524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cole TJ, Bellizzi MC, Flegal KM, Dietz WH (2000) Establishing a standard definition for child overweight and obesity worldwide: international survey. Br Med J 320:1240–1243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cole TJ, Flegal KM, Nicholls D, Jackson AA (2007) Body mass index cut offs to define thinness in children and adolescents: international survey. Br Med J 335:194–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Collins ME (1991) Body figure perceptions and preferences among preadolescent children. Int J Eat Disord 10(2):199–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Crawford D, Ball K (2002) Behavioural determinants of the obesity epidemic. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 11(Suppl):S718–S721CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dietz WH (1998) Health consequences of obesity in youth: childhood predictors of adult disease. Pediatrics 101(3):518–525Google Scholar
  11. Fitzgibbon M, Stolley M (2006) Promoting health in an unhealthful environment: lifestyle challenges for children and adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc 106(4):518–522CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Glasson C, Read H, Hands B, Parker H, Brinkman S, Miller M (2004) Food and nutrient intakes in Western Australian children and adolescents. Government of Western Australia, PerthGoogle Scholar
  13. Golan M, Crow S (2004a) Parents are key players in the prevention and treatment of weight-related problems. Nutr Rev 62(1):39–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Golan M, Crow S (2004b) Targeting parents exclusively in the treatment of childhood obesity: long-term results. Obes Res 12(2):357–361CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Golan M, Weizman A (2001) Familial approach to the treatment of childhood obesity: conceptual model. J Nutr Educ 33(2):102–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Grogan S (2006) Body image and health: contemporary perspectives. J Health Psychol 11:523–530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hands B, Parker H, Glasson C, Brinkman S, Read H (2004) Physical activity and nutrition levels in Western Australian children and adolescents: report. Western Australian Government, PerthGoogle Scholar
  18. Junghans C, Feder G, Hemingway H, Timmis A, Jones M (2005) Recruiting patients to medical research: double blind randomised trial of ‘opt-in’ versus ‘opt-out’ strategies. Br Med J 331:940–943CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kellner D, Share J (2007) Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry 1(1):59–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Killen JD, Taylor CB, Hayward C, Wilson DM, Haydel KF, Hammer LD, Litt I, Simmonds B, Haydel KF (1994) Pursuit of thinness and onset of eating disorder symptoms in a community sample of adolescent girls: a three-year prospective analysis. Int J Eat Disord 16(3):227–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Killen JD, Taylor CB, Hayward C, Haydel KF, Wilson DM, Hammer L, Kraemer H, Blair-Greiner A, Strachowski D (1996) Weight concerns influence the development of eating disorders: a 4-year prospective study. J Consult Clin Psychol 64(5):936–940CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kostanski M, Gullone E (1998) Adolescent body image dissatisfaction: relationships with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression controlling for body mass. Journal of Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry 39(2):255–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kostanski M, Fisher A, Gullone E (2004) Current conceptualisations of body image dissatisfaction: have we got it wrong? J Child Psychol Psychiatry 45(7):1317–1325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Neumark-Sztainer D (2003) Obesity and eating disorder prevention: an integrated approach? Adolesc Med 14(1):159–173Google Scholar
  25. O’Dea J (2003) Differences in overweight and obesity among Australian schoolchildren of low and middle/high socioeconomic status. Med J Aust 179(1):63–65Google Scholar
  26. O’Dea J, Caputi P (2001) Association between socioeconomic status, weight, age and gender, and the body image and weight control practices of 6- to 19-year-old children and adolescents. Health Educ Res 16(5):521–532CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Patton GC, Selzer R, Coffey C, Carlin JB, Wolfe R (1999) Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. Br Med J 318(7186):765–768Google Scholar
  28. Rasnake LK, Laube E, Lewis M, Linscheid TR (2005) Children’s nutritional judgments: relation to eating attitudes and body image. Health Commun 18(3):275–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ricciardelli LA, McCabe MP (2001) Children’s body image concerns and eating disturbance: a review of the literature. Clin Psychol Rev 21(3):325–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Rolland K, Farnill D, Griffiths RA (1997) Body figure perceptions and eating attitudes among Australian schoolchildren aged 8 to 12 years. Int J Eat Disord 21:273–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Sands R, Tricker J, Sherman C, Armatas C, Machette W (1997) Disordered eating patterns, body image, self-esteem, and physical activity in preadolescent school children. Int J Eat Disord 21(2):159–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Schur EA, Sanders M, Steiner H (2000) Body dissatisfaction and dieting in young children. Int J Eat Disord 27:74–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Schwartz MB, Brownell KD (2004) Obesity and body image. Body Image 1(1):43–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sherman DK, Iacono WG, Donnelly JM (1995) Development and validation of body rating scales for adolescent females. Int J Eat Disord 18(4):327–333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Stunkard AJ, Sorensen T, Schulsinger F (1983) Use of the Danish adoption register for the study of obesity and thinness. In: Kety SS, Rowland LP, Sidman RL, Matthysse SW (eds) Genetics of neurological and psychiatric disorders. Raven, New York, pp 115–120Google Scholar
  36. Thompson JK, Altabe M (1991) Psychometric qualities of the figure rating scale. Int J Eat Disord 10(5):615–619CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Thompson MA, Gray JJ (1995) Development and validation of a new body-image assessment scale. J Pers Assess 64(2):258–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Thompson JK, Coovert MD, Richards KJ, Johnson S, Cattarin J (1995) Development of body image, eating disturbance, and general psychological functioning in female adolescents: covariance structure modeling and longitudinal investigations. Int J Eat Disord 18(3):221–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Tiggemann M, Wilson-Barrett E (1998) Children’s figure ratings: relationship to self-esteem and negative stereotyping. Int J Eat Disord 23:83–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Truby H, Paxton SJ (2002) Development of the children’s body image scale. Br J Clin Psychol 41:185–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Vander Wal JS, Thelen MH (2000) Eating and body image concerns among obese and average-weight children. Addict Behav 25(5):775–778CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Wake M, Hardy P, Canterford L, Sawyer M, Carlin JB (2007) Overweight, obesity and girth of Australian preschoolers: prevalence and socio-economic correlates. Int J Obes 31:1044–1051CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Williamson S, Delin C (2001) Young children’s figural selections: accuracy of reporting and body size dissatisfaction. Int J Eat Disord 29:80–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wood KC, Becker JA, Thompson JK (1996) Body image dissatisfaction in preadolescent children. J Appl Dev Psychol 17:85–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. World Health Organisation (2000) Obesity: preventing and managing the global epidemic. WHO Technical Report Series, 894, GenevaGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simone Pettigrew
    • 1
    Email author
  • Melanie Pescud
    • 1
  • Robert J. Donovan
    • 2
  1. 1.University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia
  2. 2.Curtin University of TechnologyPerthAustralia

Personalised recommendations