As my friend looked down at her perfect little 5 year old daughter, she noticed she was squeezing her thighs. She looked up with concern in her eyes. “Mummy” she said “I’m worried that I’m going to get fat. I don’t want my thighs to get any bigger and I think my tummy is a bit fat too”. So just to remind you, when my friend’s daughter said this, she was 5 years old. 5.
My friend recalled the sick feeling she felt and how suddenly her heart started to beat hard. Whilst, this may have just been a flippant, passing comment, it filled her and me in turn, with dread and sadness. My three biggest fears I have for my daughter? Her safety, being bullied and eating disorders.
Why at 5 years old should a girl’s body shape be of concern to her? Why is she already thinking negatively about her body? And where has she got this attitude from?
In 2011, a report showed that out of 2,000 children treated for eating disorders, 98 were aged between 5-7 years (99 were aged between 8-9 years, 400 aged between 10-12 years and 1,500 aged between 13-15 years). There is as could be predicted, a larger number of girls affected than boys. Nine times as many girls were admitted than boys. The increase of children admitted to hospital with eating disorders from 2003 to 2013 was 172%. More than 90% of them were young girls. This isn’t reflective of what is truly going on as most people with eating disorders are treated in outpatient or private clinics and of course, some people aren’t treated at all. Therefore, the number of children with eating disorders is greater than what we see in reports.
So, this begs the question, what has caused this and what can we do about the disturbing increase of eating disorders in young women and children?
This article in the Guardian, suggests it is children’s exposure to the body images of celebrities. Dr Colin Michie, the chairman of the nutrition committee at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, blamed the constant availability of these images to children has increased eating disorders in them.
Social media can also be blamed. Young people are frequently posting images of themselves on social media for people to “like”. This constant need for the approval of their physical self can create an obsession with their body image, that in some cases could lead to eating disorders.
In 2015, the BBC reported that there was a sharp increase of schoolgirls at risk of emotional problems (where as boys’ risk remained stable). The Scientists behind the study reported that one of the reasons behind this is “a drive to achieve unrealistic body images perpetuated by social media and an increasing sexualisation of young women.”
The only positive aspect to the increase in cases reported is that maybe either more people are seeking help for their disorder or doctors are quicker or better at diagnosing it.
As a child, I never thought about my body shape. I was never concerned with the size of my stomach or shape of my legs. As a teenager, whilst I was obviously more conscious of my body and it’s never-ending changes (and now in my 40s, it’s still changing!), I never gave much thought to my body shape and certainly nothing ever came between me and my love for food (and here I am 20 odd years later and still food is seemingly my top priority. After my daughter of course. Maybe).
So, what was the key factor in my attitude towards my own body as child and teenager? The obvious answer could be, as mentioned above, that there was no social media in my youth and less obsession with celebrities’ bodies. Whilst there was some discourse surrounding famous women’s bodies, it was never at the disturbing levels we see today. I don’t ever remember articles in my Mum’s magazines shaming women about their bodies.
However, I firmly believe the main reason I had a healthy body image was because of my own Mother. I don’t ever remember her complaining about her body or putting herself down. The word “diet’ was never uttered by her. I only remember her once mentioning wanting to exercise more. Also, she never compared her body to other women’s bodies or even complimented other women’s bodies. In fact, once on holiday I remember my brother and I teasing my Mum about her ‘spare tyre’ and my Mum just shrugging and laughing it off. I know, we sounded like such lovely & charming children. The point is my Mum was so outwardly comfortable in her own skin and at ease with her body shape, we could crack these kind of jokes around her. It’s worth noting that my Mother equally encouraged me to clear my dinner plate as much as my brother was and I was congratulated when I did so.
Also, I remember my Mum telling me that she loved her stretch marks on her stomach as they were a reminder of her children and what her marvellous had body achieved.
This is a solid point. Women’s bodies should be celebrated and not shamed. Why are people more willing to do the latter than the former? Whether it’s with regards to other people’s bodies or their own? Why don’t we hear of more New Year’s resolutions about accepting and loving our bodies rather than depriving or punishing them?
From reading and researching various articles on eating disorders in young children and through my own personal experiences, I’ve compiled a list of possible ways to prevent eating disorders in young children.
1. Avoid talking about your own weight and dieting. As mentioned above. It’s a non-brainer. What we vocalise in the home has a huge impact on young ears. Also, when we treat ourselves to a slice of cake, can we stop saying “ooh I know it’s naughty”. Cake is not naughty, it’s bloody delicious. Life is hard, eat the cake. Guilt free.
2. Don’t tease a girl about their body and/or weight. Up to 40% of girls are teased and this can double their risk of being overweight and causing eating disorders.
3. Have plenty of sit down family meals. This one is not always possible everyday, but it’s worth bearing in mind that as parents we are role models and our eating habits can influence our children’s. Personally, I fail doing this in the week, but Friday-Sunday, we always make this obligatory.
4. Explain that images of women in media are unrealistic. We should protect our children from society’s emphasis on body shape and weight. I adore the women on social media who portray their bodies realistically. The model Charli Howard who is the founder of the All Woman Project is a fantastic role model for young women. She describes herself as a body positive activist and her Instagram account features numerous realistic and untouched photos of her showing off her lumps, bumps and cellulite. She actively encourages women to learn to love all of their ‘squishy bits’ and how normal the imperfect body is. She openly talks about the misery that starving her body to be a size 6 brought her in the past and her All Woman Project works with schools running events and workshops for young girls. Another great role model for younger girls is the radio DJ Lilah Parson, who has a refreshing and healthy attitude towards her body and food. When asked recently if she was content with her body, she answered “Yes, I’m very content. I know what clothes work for my body and I’m happy and healthy. We don’t all have to look like Victoria’s Secret models. We put far too much pressure on ourselves” When she was asked what she liked about her body, she was easily able to list a few things. When she was asked to list what she didn’t like, she just answered that she tries not to be negative about her body. How wonderful to hear a young woman talk confidently about her body and with absolutely no shame. This is how it should be. In fact, women like Charli and Lilah aren’t just role models for young women, they’re role models for all women.
5. Never mention if you think a celebrity or person has a good body. This can encourage a child or young woman to compare their body with the so-called ideal body shape and it also compounds the idea that a woman’s body shape or weight is imperative to their self worth.
Recently, a documentary film has been made about women’s body called Embrace (more information about this film can be found here). This is the word I have always used in association with becoming happy with one’s body. We should all embrace our bodies for what they are. Whatever their shape, size, colour, abilities or disabilities are.
For all of us to try and achieve the homogenised “ideal” body shape is utterly ridiculous, a waste of time and energy and downright dangerous.
I know too many women that have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. I guarantee that if a woman hasn’t suffered from an eating disorder they will know more than one woman that has. And now, we are witnessing an increase in eating disorders in children, this madness, this attitude towards are own bodies HAS to stop.
Love your body, it’s the only one you’ll ever get. Love your bumps, your lumps, its imperfections. Embrace your body, not just for yourself, but for our all the little girls who will grow up to be beautiful women, whatever their shape.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Charli Howard:
“This can be the year that you choose to kick old habits; this can be the year you embrace your true shape, stop giving a shit about dieting and calories and choose to be happy. Eat what you want, love your squishy bits, step away from the scales (and bad boys) and don’t let anyone or anything make you feel you’re less than perfect. I’m off to cook a hearty roast dinner with my family because I don’t give a fuck about my weight anymore and neither should you bad bitches”.