A study in Sudbury has found children as young as three are unhappy with their bodies — and a Laurentian University psychologist says that's the age when efforts to cultivate healthy attitudes about bodies need to start.

Dr. Line Tremblay said she showed silhouettes of different bodies to three-to-five-year-olds for her research.

The children had to pick which silhouettes best represented their body type.

Tremblay said half the children showed dissatisfaction by picking out slimmer or fatter silhouettes. And she said three is not too young for children to imitate the behaviour of their parents when they hear parents criticize themselves.

“They observe us and, at this age, they can pick up negative comments … and apply that to themselves, so it's important to know that,” she said.

“Parents tend to think that these children are too young to understand or have an idea of their body size [when], in fact, they do have a good idea. They can compare themselves with others.”

Tremblay said poor body image is linked to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and can lead to disorders such as anorexia.

The study was published in June 2011, in the journal Body Image. A total of 144 children, aged 3-5 years, were interviewed (68 girls and 76 boys).

A dietitian at the Sudbury and District Health Unit said she’s not surprised by the study results.

“Because we live in such a weight-centred society, I'm sure that parents transmit these messages unconsciously and they see it on television and everywhere they go,” Paula Ross said. “It's not surprising at all.”

Teaching healthy eating and active living early in life helps children feel happy and confident, she said. 

Ross said the health unit is preparing a trial after-school program in Sudbury for nine-to-12-year-olds to help teach positive body image.