Children in the United States are becoming more overweight. In the past 2 decades, a twofold increase in the prevalence of overweight has been reported among children aged 6 to 17 years.1
Today, ~14% of school-aged children are overweight and another 11% are at risk of overweight.1
. Increased rates of overweight are also noted among preschool-aged children, particularly 4- to 5-year-old girls.2
(Overweight was defined conservatively, ie, ≥95th weight for height percentile (WHP). A less conservative definition of overweight, ie, ≥85th WHP, Himes and Dietz, 1994, will be adopted in this article.) Consequently, overweight is regarded as the most prevalent nutritional disease among children and adolescents in the United States.3
Childhood overweight has been associated with numerous negative health and psychological outcomes including noninsulin-dependent diabetes,4
and disturbed body image.8,9
Childhood overweight has also been associated with negative self-evaluations among school-aged children and adolescents,10,11
possibly because overweight children are negatively evaluated by their peers.12–15
The relationship between childhood overweight and self-evaluations has rarely been considered among preschool-aged children. In addition, there is little information regarding how parental reaction to childhood overweight during the preschool years is associated with the young child’s developing sense of self. This study examines the relationship between weight status and self-concept in preschool-aged girls and explores whether parents’ concern about their daughter’s weight status or restriction of her access to food is associated with negative self-evaluations.
Self-concept can be defined as a schema of oneself. (Terms such as self-identity, self-image, and self-identity are used interchangeably with self-concept in the literature.) This schema incorporates descriptors used to define the self (eg, I am tall, I am smart) and the overall evaluative tone associated with such descriptors, generally referred to as self-esteem or general self-concept (eg, I think that I am a good person). Self-concept is multidimensional.16
In addition to a general sense of self, individuals develop self-representations in domains such as physical-appearance self (including body esteem), athletic self, social self, and academic self. A substantial body of research suggests that overweight children experience low self-concept across a number of domains of self-concept. Among school-aged children and adolescents, concurrent associations have been found between childhood overweight and low global self-concept,10,11,17–21
and physical appearance self-concept.9,18,19,22
Using a sample of preschool-aged children, Klesges et al23
found that athletic self-concept negatively and prospectively correlated with body fat 1 and 2 years later.
A notable body of research, however, has failed to identify a relationship between childhood overweight and self-concept.23–25
Consequently, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about the relationship between childhood overweight and self-concept. There are a number of reasons for the inconsistency in research findings including varying definitions of overweight, the use of both unidimensional (assessing only general self-concept) and multidimensional (assessing all domains of self-concept) measures of self-concept, and differing samples. In addition, previous research has assessed only the direct relationship between weight status and self-concept,26
that is, the main effect of weight status on self-concept. The search for main effects, in contrast to interaction effects, assumes that all overweight children will be similarly affected by their weight status.
An overweight child is embedded in a social context. This context provides clues to the child about the acceptability of his or her weight status. Certain factors within this environment may protect the child from self-depreciating thoughts or may place the child at risk of such thoughts. With the physical and emotional well-being of their child in mind, parents of an overweight child may react to their child’s weight status by expressing concern and by altering the feeding environment. A concerned parent may directly or indirectly criticize their child in an effort to encourage behavioral change. In addition, concerned parents may exert strict control over the types and quantities of food their child has access to in an attempt to foster healthful eating and to contest weight gain. Parental concern and control in the feeding domain may send children the message that their weight status is undesirable and that they are not capable of controlling their eating habits. These messages, when combined with being overweight, may negatively impact a child’s evolving sense of self.
The present study assesses the relationship between weight status and self-concept using a sample of 5-year-old girls. We have chosen to focus on 5-year-old girls because there has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of overweight among 4- to 5-year-old girls2
and research has rarely considered the relationship between weight status and self-concept in preschool-aged children. Preschool girls are of particular interest because body dissatisfaction and concern about weight are more often noted among girls than among boys.27–29
Three particular questions will be addressed. First, do 5-year-old girls with higher weight status experience lower self-concept across the various domains of self-concept? Second, is parental concern about their daughter’s weight status, or parental restriction of access to food, associated with lower self-concept among girls, independent of their weight status? Third, is higher weight status in combination with parental concern or restriction associated with lower self-concept among girls? That is, is there an interaction between weight status and parent concern or restriction in predicting girls’ self-concept?