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Factors associated with more positive body
self-concepts in preschool children

Marilyn Story
Department of Home Economics, University of Northern Iowa

The Journal of Social Psychology, 108, 49-56 (1979)


A national stratified sample of 264 three- to five-year-old children and the parents or guardians of each child were individually interviewed to determine the body self-concepts of the children and factors associated with more positive body self-concepts. Of the factors examined — sex of child, nudity classification of family, race of child, area of the country, body build of child, years of education of head of household, birth order of child, age of child, age of parents or guardians, sex of interviewer, type of family structure, number of people in household, and number of siblings — only the first two were generally significant, with males having more positive body self-concepts than females (p < .001) and social nudists more positive body self-concepts than nonnudists (p < .001).


Research over the past two and a half decades has consistently supported the premise of this study that body self-concept is an important part of overall self-concept because a person must function within the physical reality of his/her body (12, 13, 24, 26, 30). Negative or lower body self-concept scores have been associated with undue anxiety regarding pain (26); an increased number of somatic symptoms (9); a lessened ability to enter into intimate expressive relationships (5, 6); and a decrease in motor abilities (22).

In exploring when and how the relationship between body self-concept and social adjustment develops, Lieberau and Pienaar cited no difference in body self-concept of high adjusted and low adjusted six-year-olds but significant differences by the age of 10 with the higher adjusted also having higher body self-concept scores (19). In contrast, the research of Lerner indicates that the relative relations between a child’s sex and body type and the interpersonal distance used toward him remain stable from kindergarten through sixth grade (15). In order to facilitate the development of healthy body self-concepts, it appears most promising to focus on preschool children.

Several studies indicate that three- to five-year-old children can validly identify body self-concept. Some indicate that children in this age range are more aware of body attributes of their own sex than the opposite sex (23, 28), while another concludes five-year-old children seem equally aware of body attributes of both sexes (7).

The literature was examined for factors which might influence body self-concept in preschool children. Numerous studies using older Ss indicated significant differences between male and female responses on body self-concept tests (3, 10, 11, 17, 18). However, the relationships between body self-concepts and sex in preschool children has not been well defined. Research with first grade Israeli children found great sex differences in body awareness (29), while a U.S. study found that body concepts and stereotypes did not significantly influence sex role development (14).

A summary of the great volume of race preference research done on children in the 1940s and 1950s with some continuing into the 1960s shows significant race differences in body self-concepts with an overwhelming preference for light skin color and lower body self-concepts in nonwhite children (25). Goodman found that racial awareness and racial differences in body self-concept were demonstrated in very young children (8). Even with the rise of minority consciousness and identities in the 1960s, Asher and Allen reported findings supporting stronger white color preference and lower nonwhite body self-concepts than were true in earlier studies (1). However, a 1976 study indicated that preschool children were aware of racial and ethnic differences but their body characteristic preferences were influenced by the social context, perhaps indicating a decline in the importance of race as a factor in body self-concept (20).

Research has revealed body type to be another factor influencing body self-concept. Five-year-old children were shown to have a consistent dislike of chubbiness (16), while six- to ten-year-olds were found not only to dislike the endormorph type but to prefer mesomorph body build (2, 27).

Nudity classification of the family also appeared to be a factor related to body self-concept, but no previous studies including body self-concepts of social nudists were found. Other factors not specifically treated in previous literature on body self-concept but which still appeared worthy of examination in this study included area of the country in which the child lived, years of education of head of household, birth order of child, age of child, age of parents or guardians, sex of interviewer, type of family structure, number of people in household, and number of siblings.


1. Sample

This study is based on research results drawn from a national sample of 264 three- to five-year-old children and the parents or guardians of each child. The sample was stratified to include four main variables: (a) Sex of the child (132 male and 132 female); (b) Nudity classification of the family (100 social nudists, 156 nonnudists, and eight “at home only” nudists); (c) Race of the child (143 Caucasian, 35 Black, 24 Chicano, 20 Indian, and 42 Oriental); (d) Area of the country in which the child lived (100 West, 80 Midwest, and 84 East).

Seventy-five of the 100 social nudist children were members of families belonging to The American Sunbathing Association, 25 each from Eastern, Midwestern, and Western clubs. Most of these families were delegates of their clubs to a national American Sunbathing Association convention. The other 25 social nudist children were members of California families who had visited a Southern California nudist beach more than 10 times. The length of time nudist parents reported being social nudists ranged from one year to 32 years with a mean of 8.6 years.

In order to try to equate them with the educational and socioeconomic background of the sample nudist families, nonnudist children were chosen from six university community preschools, two in California (N = 50), two in Iowa, (N = 55), and two in Delaware (N = 59). During parent interviews, three of the Iowa families and five of the Delaware families were found to practice nudity regularly at home and, therefore, were put in a separate, “at-home only” nudist, category. Within each of the nudist, “at-home only” nudists, and nonnudist groups, and within each of the geographic area groups, half the sample was male and half female. Within each race, the number of males and females was within one of being equal. While a special effort was made to have approximately equal numbers of each of the five selected races in the nudist and in the nonnudist categories, the proportion of nudist children was actually nearer to one third with 59 Caucasian, 13 Black, six Chicano, six Indian, and 16 Oriental children being nudist and the remainder of the sample of each of these races being nonnudist. All the “at-home only” nudists were Caucasian.

2. Procedure

Each child was given an individually administered body self-concept test. The test consisted of the interviewer pointing to a body part on nude drawings of a child of the same sex and race as the child being interviewed and asking, “Do you like your _?” This was repeated for 16 body parts. With the use of the drawings, each child was also asked, “What part of your body do you like best? Why?” and “What part of your body do you like least? Why?” A structured, individual interview was conducted with each parent or guardian to determine concepts of the child’s weight, height, and body build; reasons for these concepts; and selected demographic data. 

There were no differences among the sample categories of each stratification or in total body self-concept scores according to years of education of head of household, child’s birth order, age of child, age of parents or guardians, body weight, body height, body build, or sex of interviewer. Therefore these variables were considered to be controlled in the study. 

There were differences (p < .05) among the sample categories of the nudity stratification and in total body self-concept scores according to family type, number of people in household, and number of siblings. Higher body self-concept scores were achieved by children in nuclear families, children in families with three to five members, and children who had zero to two siblings. Since a higher proportion of social nudist families than nonnudist families were in each of these categories, these three variables were controlled in the analysis by treating them as covariants.


Similar to findings of previous studies, three- to five-year-old children in this study were already found to have clearly developed body self-concepts as evidenced by their ability to complete the self-concept test reliably. By retesting 38 of the children after two weeks, a test/retest reliability coefficient of . 91 was obtained. Research by Dillon found that while three-year-olds may have emotional attitudes toward their bodies, five-year-olds had more awareness of body self-concept (4). Lerner and Gilbert discovered five-year-old females superior to five-year-old males at accurately identifying body builds (16). In contrast to these studies, the current study found no difference in reliability according to age or sex of the Ss.

Parents and guardians were found to have accurate perceptions of their children’s body weight, height, and body build. Their ratings of these items correlated with the interviewer’s ratings to give a Kendall correlation coefficient of .9198 for body weight, .9129 for body height, and .8364 for body build; all three were significant (p < .001).

An analysis of variance was done to determine the relationship between body self-concept test scores and (a) sex of the child, (b) nudity classification of the family, (c) race of the child, and (d) area of the country in which the child lived. While certain subscores, especially attitude toward genitals, showed significance, there was no relationship between total body self-concept test score and either race of the child or area of the country in which the child lived. Both sex of the child and nudity classification of the family were significant (p < .001) with males and nudists scoring higher than females and nonnudists. “At home only” nudists scored lower (p < .001) than social nudists and higher (p < .01) than nonnudists; but the sample size of “at home nudists” (8) was smaller than preferred.

In a further breakdown of the sex and nudity classification factors, nudism was found to be a more important variable than sex. Social nudist males scored higher than nonnudists males and higher than nonnudist females. Social nudist females scored higher than nonnudist females, and also scored higher than nonnudist males. All of these differences were significant (p < .001). When the nudity classification was not a variable, differences were only significant at the .01 level with nudist males scoring higher than nudist females and nonnudist males scoring higher than nonnudist females.

Answers to the questions “What part of your body do you like best?” and “What part do you like least?” were categorized according to a component analysis similar to that done by Mahoney and Finch (21) and analyzed by chi square. No relationship was found between the part of the body liked best and race or area of the country. However, sex of the child was significant (p < .001) with females more often liking best their hair, eyes, nose, or mouth; while males more often liked best their arms or their genitals. Nudity classification of the family was significant (p < .001) with nonnudists more often liking best their hair, eyes, nose, or mouth, while nudists named their genitals as best liked most often. No difference was found as to what body part was liked least according to sex, race, or area of the country. However, the relationship between body part liked least and nudity classification was significant (p < .001) with nudists most often answering they had no body part they least liked while nonnudists most often named genitals as least liked. More nudists said they disliked their skin color more than any other body part, not because of their race but because of too little suntan or too much sunburn.

Three different judges independently categorized comments or reasons given for liking or disliking body parts into five categories: (a) Aesthetic (characteristics related to perceived looks); (b) Female sex role concepts (characteristics only women usually have); (c) Male sex role concepts I (characteristics only men usually have); (d) Functional (descriptions related to use of the body part other than sex role related use); (e) Situational (characteristics which are temporary such as dirt or injury). There was 100 percent agreement between the three judges’ categorizations of comments.

An analysis of variance was done among the number of comments in each category in relation to sex, race, area of the country, and nudity classification. Females made more aesthetic comments than males (p < .001) while nonnudists made more aesthetic comments than nudists (p < .05) Females made all the comments in the female sex role category (p < .001) while males made all the comments in the male sex role category (p < .001). No differences were found according to race on number of female sex role comments. However, Indians and Chicanos made more male sex role comments than did Blacks, Caucasians, or Orientals (p < .01). Males made more functional comments than females (p < < .001), while nudists made more functional comments than nonnudists (p < .046). Nudists made more situational comments than nonnudists (p < .019).

 Since there was no relationship in this research between total body self-concept score and either race of the child or area of the country in which the child lived, many subculture differences in our country may be less important to positive body self-concept than previously thought. Similarly, in contrast to previous studies, this study did not find a relationship between body weight, body height, or body build and body self-concept. These variables may be becoming less important to positive body self-concept because ideal body types are becoming less defined.



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216 Wright Hall
University of Northern Iowa

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