How Drastically Body Image Changes From Childhood to Adulthood

If I asked you, “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?” you’d probably have an answer.

A new video, called “Comfortable: 50 People, 1 Question,” shows that most of us do. Adults who were asked the question on camera responded with perceived flaws like, “I would change my forehead. I have a really big forehead.” Or “the puffiness of my face.” And, “stretch marks after having a baby.”

When the question was posed to children, though, they didn’t think of anything bad about their body at all. They mentioned that it would be cool to add a mermaid tail, a shark mouth (“so I could eat a lot of stuff”), or maybe grow some wings.

 One little girl was completely stumped. “I like my body actually,” she says. 

Experts say that the video is a neat way of showing that everything we think is wrong with our bodies has been taught to us. “It’s 100 percent conditioned,” Sarah Maria, a body image expert and author of Love Your Body, Love Your Life, says. “Children don’t have that toxic condition in place. Not liking something is based on the idea that it’s not attractive, and that’s learned. There’s nothing natural about it.”

The video is by the Jubilee Project, whose mission is to make films for good causes, and sponsored by iNature Skincare, an Australian beauty brand.

The children’s answers show that they have no clue about our beauty standards. What they think is awesome is having magical or fairytale-like attributes; what we think is awesome is being wrinkle free.

“Stories children read are filled with creatures that have super abilities or specialty qualities,” Sheila Hageman, a women’s empowerment author and speaker, says. “The possibilities are endless and fun. So, when they hear the question, “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?” they immediately go to the possibility of what would be fun to add on, instead of what should be removed or erased.”

 Their fineness with their own bodies also shows that they’re bogged down with figuring out what wrong with everything all of the time. Rebecca Hains, a children’s media culture expert and professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., says, “Young children are open-minded and innocent, and with that innocence comes an acceptance of the world as it is. They are likely to see people as whole people—not a catalogue of body parts and traits. This applies to their view of themselves and others.” 

So when does that change? When do we learn that, as one guys says in the video, “I have big ears”? Experts say it’s different for everyone, and can—for some—actually start at a young age.

“At five or younger a child could learn not to like their body,” Maria says. “If they were raised in an abusive family where they were called fat, the child would think ‘I shouldn’t eat so much.’”

In addition to the family environment, how strong your sense of self is and how much popular media you’re exposed to can speed up or delay when you start to consider—or loathe—body flaws. “Some people are lucky enough to be raised in a way that makes them aware of their intrinsic value as a human being, rather than their value being dependent on their looks,” Hageman says. “Some aren’t.”

To keep your own children centered on being proud of their bodies instead of mulling changes they’d like to make, Hageman says to simply be positive yourself. “Parental influence from the start can do an amazing job of counteracting society’s negative influences,” she says.

With her own 10-year-old daughter, Hageman makes sure not say anything negative about her child’s body—or her own. “My husband and I both also try not to load positive physical attributes onto her either, so that she doesn’t grow up needing external rewards and acknowledgements for her looks,” she says. 

It’s not impossible to alter this conditioning within ourselves either, experts say. It is tough, though.“We have to look at what pollution we have inside ourselves and be willing to question that,” Maria says. “We have to ask what we’ve been taught is ugly by our parents and our friends, and consider, Are we willing to drop that?”

That question might take you longer to answer.