WHEN I WAS five, I remember sitting around making mudpies; I was certainly not worrying about the size of my thighs. But then TV was in its infancy and Woman's Weekly was more concerned with creating the perfect sponge recipe than the latest diet. Thirty years on, the ideal of physical perfection is so ingrained in our society, we've almost ceased to question it. For children, however, every day is a chance to take in the values of the adult world. "Girls, in particular, learn relatively early in life that it's very important how you look," says Andrew Hill, Professor of Medical Psychology at Leeds University.
"And that it's good to be slim and bad to be fat. It's written large across our society on billboards, in ads, magazines, TV, even the comments you overhear. When was the last time you praised someone for losing weight?"
Over the past few years, the fear of fatness has been compounded by the national campaign on obesity. Professor Hill led the UK study to get obesity onto the public health agenda but believes the message ended up backfiring. Psychotherapist Em Farrell believes the current focus on obesity has been hugely damaging for children. "The Government response was to make obesity a lifestyle issue. It's your fault if you're overweight – and that message ended up being received by a section of the population that it was never intended for: children. It has added another dimension to an already negative depiction of what it means to be overweight and led to enormous confusion among young people," she says. "Food has become something to be controlled. The focus needs to
be on how you listen and respond to your body rather than on seeing it as something outside yourself."
According to recent statistics published by the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit (BPSU), around four children in every 100,000 are currently treated for an eating disorder, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. The researchers of the study entitled Early Onset Eating Disorders asked 2,600 psychiatrists and paediatricians how many eating disorders they had diagnosed in children aged five to 12 years. Over a period of 13 months, 206 children in the UK and Ireland were treated for an eating disorder. In this study, the youngest child with an eating disorder was a girl of six, while 18 per cent of reported cases were boys, showing that this is not just a problem for girls.
In a study carried out at Flinders University in South Australia, children as young as five were found to be unhappy with their bodies and wanted to be thinner. The study surveyed girls between the ages of five and seven. While 28.6 per cent of five-year-olds wanted to lose weight, this statistic jumped to 71 per cent of seven-year-olds. So some time during the first few years at school, something was happening to lower body image and raise body dissatisfaction levels. "Dieting awareness and body dissatisfaction develops over the first two years of school," say the authors. "Most of the girls believed that being thin would make them more likeable." Another survey carried out by the private medical insurance company BUPA found that one in five British school pupils was so unhappy with their appearance they wanted cosmetic surgery to change it.
Farrell has worked with many children with eating disorders. "A child's attitude to her body is formed from the start," she says. "Even the way you handle your baby determines how she will feel about her body. If a mother is unhappy with her body, she may not like her baby's body and the baby can pick up on this negativity."
So, as parents, our first responsibility is to sort out our own body image (or at least to try not to be so openly verbal about body parts we are not happy with!). Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue , believes some families have become so messed up about food that they think it's perfectly normal now to be anxious about body issues. "We parents may think we are trying to make it better for our children, but often we are just passing down our own disordered eating patterns," she says. "Parents have to examine their own attitudes to eating." That means eating cake when your children do because it tastes good, and not worrying or feeling guilty about it.
Jenny O'Dea, a Senior Lecturer in Health and Nutrition Education at the University of Sydney, works with children with eating disorders and poor body image, where her treatment focuses on boosting the child's self-esteem. "Children need to learn that they are so much more than their appearance," she says. "Concentrate on all the positive things that their bodies can do – such as ride horses, swim in the sea, dance, feel, have babies later on in life. They need to be encouraged to take up hobbies and have different groups of friends. That way, they are introduced to a diverse range of people and recognise diversity as a good thing."
Creating a positive body image
- Be a good role model. Think about how you refer to your own body and comments that you make about size and weight. Try to avoid making any negative comments about other people's weight and appearance, too.
Encourage a healthy attitude towards all foods. Make sure there's plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your child's diet, but don't be afraid to offer the occasional slice of cake and biscuit. It's important your child understands that it's not 'bad' to eat these once in a while.
Focus on the physical functions of the body rather than how it looks. Praise your child for dancing, swimming, and doing cartwheels.
Never force food upon your child. Children naturally regulate their own eating, so don't let it become a battleground.
Encourage media literacy by talking about the images you see in magazines and on TV, and thinking about what each one is trying to promote and how they are achieving that.
- Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction In Men, Women And Children by Sarah Grogan, Routledge, £16.50.
Eating Disorders: A Parentsï¿½ Guide by Bryan Lask and Rachel Bryant-Waugh, Brunner-Routledge, £9.99.
Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill by Barry Gunter and Maggie Wykes, Sage Publications, £18.99.
Information and help on all aspects of eating disorders, plus a youth helpline and noticeboard.
The National Centre for Eating Disorders Website.
Eating Disorders Association – a charity offering advice including a youthline for under-18s. Tel: 0845 634 7650.