What do I want to be when I grow up? SKINNY

What do I want to be when I grow up SKINNY
Girls of six who loathe their bodies. Ten-year-old boys refusing to eat their lunch. How society's obsession with thinness is infecting primary schools

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UPDATED:

20:00 GMT, 25 July 2012

Going through her son’s PE bag to wash his kit, Sue was horrified to find, among the socks and shorts, several bundles of clingfilm filled with mouldy sandwiches, sausage rolls and fruit.

Searching the pockets of his school coat, she uncovered a similar haul. It turned out that Tom, her ten-year-old son, had been hiding much of his packed lunch rather than eating it for several weeks.

When she gently questioned him, Tom burst into tears. Another child had made a snide remark about his body shape in the changing rooms. As a result, Tom was trying to starve himself to lose weight.

Dangerous obsession: Children as young as six are becoming desperate to be thin (posed by model)

Dangerous obsession: Children as young as six are becoming desperate to be thin (posed by model)

Sadly, this is far from an isolated occurrence. As an educational consultant, I hear similar tales almost every day.

It was no surprise to me to read this week that a study of 31,354 children by the Schools Health Education Unit revealed that half of the Year Eight girls questioned — those aged just 12 to 13 — already wanted to lose weight. The beginnings of this attitude can be seen long before that.

I have taught in primary schools for 25 years, and for the past 15 years, together with my business partner, I have specialised in pupils’ behaviour and emotional health, running courses for schools on body confidence and self-esteem.

Often we are approached by primary schools whose teachers are concerned about the behaviour they are seeing. They report six-year-old girls worrying they are ‘too fat’, children reluctant to do PE or swimming because they are concerned about how their bodies look, and boys under ten describing themselves as ‘puny, weak and no good’ because they feel they are not muscular enough.

Sometimes, even the healthy-eating message that schools are obliged to promote can lead to problems as young children can misunderstand the message or take it to extremes. One mother told me her nine-year-old son became obsessed with the fat content of his packed lunch after a school lesson about the dangers of obesity.

Not real: Children need to be taught that the images of perfection they see in the media have been manipulated, like this film poster from King Arthur where Keira Knightley has given a bigger cleavage and brighter skin, right

Not real: Children need to be taught that the images of perfection they see in the media have been manipulated, like this film poster from King Arthur where Keira Knightley has given a bigger cleavage and brighter skin, right

Not real: Children need to be taught that the images of perfection they see in the media have been manipulated, like this film poster from King Arthur where Keira Knightley has given a bigger cleavage and brighter skin, right

Another said her formerly confident, tomboyish, slim ten-year-old girl had refused to wear a certain skirt because ‘it doesn’t hide my flubber’.

All these stories are a symptom of a very worrying development: an unhealthy obsession with appearance, particularly weight, among primary school children.

At an age when we might expect children’s major preoccupations to be friendship, games or schoolwork, too many of them are anxious about what they see in the mirror and are taking desperate — sometimes dangerous — measures, to change it.

An Ofsted survey in 2010 revealed that, for a third of ten-year-old girls and 22 per cent of ten-year-old boys, their main worry is how their bodies look. Girls who are not yet nine are putting themselves on diets: recent statistics reveal that nearly 200 British children aged from five to nine have been hospitalised for severe anorexia.

'Girls of nine, when asked what they want to be, do not reply “a vet” or “a teacher” but “skinny” or “hot”'

Although some work has been done among secondary school children to tackle problems such as eating disorders and help them to develop a positive body image, research shows it can be too late by then. The seeds of eating disorders and anxiety about appearance are usually sown years earlier. /07/25/article-2178914-01A3B6390000044D-666_468x286.jpg” width=”468″ height=”286″ alt=”Influenced while playing: The popular Bratz dolls portray a vampish prettiness that girls subconsciously believe is ideal” class=”blkBorder” />

Influenced while playing: The popular Bratz dolls portray a vampish prettiness that girls subconsciously believe is ideal

These are all worrying signs of a growing obsession with appearance — a preoccupation that not only stops children from relaxing and enjoying themselves, but encourages them to become highly self-critical, undermining their confidence and lowering their aspirations.

Children with a poor body image can develop behavioural problems. We hear children as young as eight saying things like: ‘I hate the way I look’, or, ‘I don’t want to put my hand up in class because I don’t want people to look at me.’

They become withdrawn and parents and teachers have no idea why, but it’s often because they have low self-esteem.

At ten, girls’ body fat increases in preparation for puberty. But because they are already so conditioned to believe they have to be skinny, they panic. Shockingly, ten is now the average age at which children begin dieting.

Modern children are more vulnerable than previous generations to eating disorders because, almost from birth, they are assailed by images of ‘perfection’: on advertising billboards, magazine covers, the internet and television.

WHO KNEW

Girls whose mothers are on a diet are almost twice as likely to have an eating disorder, according to a poll of 500 teenagers

The average child watches up to 40,000 advertisements a year — which invariably contain images of thin, beautiful women, so children equate beauty with skinniness. Even toys like My Little Pony and Bratz dolls portray a vampish prettiness that, in my view, girls subconsciously believe is ideal.

Modern children are also photographed far more than previous generations. They photograph each other then study their appearance, often in a highly critical way.

They see pictures of girls pouting or striking raunchy poses on social networking sites like Facebook, particularly if they have older siblings, and try to emulate them.

This is an issue that crosses all social boundaries. It’s happening in state and private schools, inner cities and rural areas. A beautician working in a remote village told me she has to turn away girls of seven wanting body hair removal.

We cannot just blame the media. Mothers can be very self-critical, talking constantly about losing weight. Girls are likely to absorb and copy this sort of behaviour.

So what can we do to counteract this and boost children’s confidence early on so they do not develop anxieties and eating disorders

Parents must make an effort not to focus too heavily on children’s appearance. It is fine to tell them they look nice, but we should also recognise their other qualities, so they know they are valued for who they are and what they do, not just what they look like. Point children towards role models whose success is not based on their looks.

We also need to make children less vulnerable to media images of bodily perfection. On our courses we show them how airbrushing is used to hide blemishes or make models appear thinner. They are less likely to aspire to perfection if they know it doesn’t really exist.

And be careful what your children are watching and listening to: the lyrics of many songs, soap opera storylines or TV shows like The X Factor can all give the impression that looking good or ‘sexy’ and pleasing the opposite sex are the most important goals in life.

Making children aware that perfection is impossible, and encouraging them to focus on the things they like about their appearance, will help them to feel positive about their bodies and about themselves.

Above all, we must ensure our young are able to enjoy their childhood without being crippled by insecurity about how they look.

Body Image In The Primary School by Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland (Routledge, 19.99); notjustbehaviour.co.uk