A weighty concern

Health New research shows that children as young as six say they want to be thinner.

Exposure to a celebrity-obsessed media is one of the reasons why children are becoming weight-conscious.
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One of the most worrying aspects of modern-day childhood is the capacity of very young girls to act as "mini-mes" of their mothers. It may seem harmless enough when they want their nails painted or, if they are anything like my three-year-old, hanker after lipstick - even if they then daub some round their eyes.

But research shows that children as young as six worry about their weight and are generally dissatisfied with the shape of their bodies.In extremis, they turn to the web as teenagers to search out one of the 1,000 or so "thin-spiration" galleries featuring skinny and emaciated celebrities with their ribs on show. But are mothers to blame for this? Do children absorb ideas about dieting with their mother's milk, or is the school playground and peer pressure to blame?

A team from the Flinders University of South Australia interviewed more than 80 girls aged five to eight to find out. Their study, in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, found 47 per cent wanted to be slimmer, and most thought that this would make them more popular. Most of the six and seven-year-olds rated their ideal figure as significantly thinner than they in fact were. "Girls seemed particularly aware of teasing and likeability on the basis of weight and shape," the report concluded.

Hayley Dohnt, who led the study, said previous research had focused on parents' behaviour and beliefs as the source of children's views about their own appearance. "However, the major life event which occurs over the five- to seven-year age range, when body dissatisfaction begins, is the commencement of schooling," she said. "So peer influence may in fact be particularly salient for this age group."

It's hardly surprising that children are frightened of being fat if friendlessness is the corollary. Bullying at school, particularly over weight, is common. But the UK's eating disorder association, known as Beat, says children are now under multiple pressures to be thin, and some as young as eight have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, the potentially life-threatening disorder characterised by a desire to lose large amounts of weight rapidly.

Mary George, spokeswoman said, "It's very worrying that at a very young age children are becoming more aware of body image and I think this stems from exposure to the media, particularly young girls' magazines, and what happens in the playground. There is a lot of bullying about body shape." She said girls also picked up a lot of signals from their mothers. "In the home, mum may be a constant dieter, paying a lot of attention to what's in the fridge and on the table. That can set off a consciousness of weight, shape and calorie intake.What mothers need to be obsessed about is putting healthy, balanced food on the table, not drawing attention to their own weight or calories all the time.

"I saw a programme on television recently and I was horrified that a mother of a 10-year-old girl pinned up pictures of herself when she was a slim size eight and size 10 to remind herself of what she looked like when she was a thinner woman. This child was taking it all in, going with her mum every day to the gym and just aping mum. That is extreme. As far as the child was concerned, she knew her mum wanted to be much slimmer and that child was wanting to emulate mum and it's horrific."

It's not just dieting mums and a celebrity-obsessed media that are at fault. The psychologist Helga Dittmar, of Sussex University in the UK, found that skinny dolls could increase children's craving for skinnier bodies and if messages - such as having a perfect body - were impossible to achieve, children could end up feeling guilty and useless, she said. In her research, she cites the model Cindy Jackson - now famous as Britain's most surgically-enhanced woman - who once told CBS News: "I looked at a Barbie doll when I was six and said, 'This is what I want to look like.' I think a lot of little six-year-old girls or younger even now are looking at that doll and thinking, 'I want to be her'." Incidentally - and according to Barbie's 1998 biography by John Kehoe - at human size Barbie would be 5'6" tall, weigh 110lbs, and have a 39" bust, 18" waist and 35" hips."

Dittmar said that parents needed to guide children away from thinking that being thin was the ideal. "It is important to emphasise sources of self-worth that are not related to physical appearance," she said. She pointed out that the American Dietetic Association had endorsed a doll called Emme, based on a model of the same name with a size 14-16 figure, who represented a more voluptuous shape. Countries from the UK to the UAE could do the same, she suggested. "Diverse body shapes, particularly healthy weight bodies, can only be a step in the right direction."

The obsession with being thin is particularly dangerous when you consider that the young body puts on weight for a reason. Dr Andrew Hill, a senior lecturer in behavioural sciences at Leeds University Medical School, says it is entirely normal for young children to put on weight at different stages in their physical development. In puberty, girls double in body fat. They are physically gaining the body tissue they need for fertility, he said. Unless you have enough body fat, you won't menstruate. Younger children are teasing each other about having a fat bottom or legs when in fact what they are looking at is puppy fat. Ordinarily, these so-called fat youngsters will grow into adults of an average weight.

Dr Joanne Lunn, a senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, said that the focus on obesity in society should not be overdone. "There is a very fine line to be drawn when you are telling people about obesity," she told me. "Children have lots of issues already and you don't want to burden them with problems that may not be there for them." She referred to a national scheme, started this year in the UK, where children are weighed and measured at school when they are five and again at 10 and 11. The data is fed into the National Child Obesity Database to monitor progress towards the government's target to halt the rise in childhood obesity. Normally teachers will shy away from discussions about "Am I too fat or am I too thin?" for fear of stirring up a hornet's nest.

"But measuring children this way raises issues of how much you tell the child about the measurements you are taking," said Dr Lunn. "You do have to think 'how does this activity relate to the child?'" So adults - from parents to marketing managers to celebrities to teachers - must be acutely attuned to the subliminal messages they give out to children, and how those messages may be amplified in the playground.

Beat says it receives 20,000 telephone calls a year to its helpline from girls for whom the desire to lose weight has become an obsession, manifesting itself as an eating disorder. Rationally, most people know that, at the end of life, no one really cares that they were a size eight or 10. Girls need to learn to focus on what really matters in life, Beat's spokeswoman said, rather than obsessing about trying to attain an unrealistic goal, especially when it might end up to endangering their lives.