Sometimes Its Hard To Be A Girl
A child's body is an image often used by the advertising industry to symbolise all that is simple and straightforward and natural in the world. In reality, though, children's bodies are at the heart of one of the most complicated tangles of modern life: because, when it comes to our kids and what they eat, how they look and how they feel about how they look, we seem to have screwed up big-time. And what's more, we don't seem to have the first idea about how to start putting things back together again.
Here are the facts: too many western children are fat. Not just a bit fat, a lot fat: according to a recent report from Sport England, as many as 16% are obese. That matters, because obese kids become obese adults, get more diseases and die earlier, costing a fortune in human misery and NHS money.
But now, amid the government campaign to persuade the nation's children and their parents that they must stay fit and slim, comes a study to show that girls as young as five are unhappy with their bodies and want to be thinner. Researchers from Flinders University in Australia interviewed 81 girls aged between five and eight and found that nearly half - 46.9% - wanted to be thinner, while 45.7% said they would go on a diet if they gained weight.
According to the research paper, reported in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, just 11 of these girls (14%) were actually overweight, and three (4%) were obese. So it's clearly not so much a case of "honey, I shrunk the kids" as "honey, I shrunk the wrong kids". Yes, messages about weight control and healthy eating may be getting through to children and their families - but are they getting through to the wrong youngsters, and the wrong families? Are public information campaigns aimed at older, fatter children somehow being imbibed by littler, thinner ones, and taken too seriously to heart?
Academics think this could be part of the problem. Dr Andrew Hill, of Leeds University Medical School, says research among more than 200 eight-year-olds has shown they have a high awareness of the government's campaign against obesity. "We've got the message through loud and clear to the general public, but it's also filtered through to groups it was never intended to reach," he says. "No one wants six-year-olds taking matters into their own hands and reducing their calorific intake."
But of course public health campaigns are only part of all this; little girls are subject to all sorts of pressures from their peers, from the media, from everyone around them. What the Flinders researchers believe their paper shows most clearly is that peer pressure - a key element in determining the feelings of older, adolescent girls towards their bodies - is already at work among far younger age groups. Elizabeth Hartley Brewer, author of Talking to Tweenies, says she would be surprised if peer pressure was quite so strong at five or six - in her own work, she's noticed it more around seven and eight and up. "But someone told me recently about a child of six talking about a school friend and saying she got her clothes in charity shops, while another of seven was talking about buying in Next," she says. "So they're clearly already conscious about where they and others are shopping, and are making judgments about what it means."
My own daughter, who's six, has been a dedicated tomboy since the age of three: and while she has not ditched her combat trousers and black trainers yet, she is clearly more and more aware that she has a different image from the other girls in her class, and is making subtle changes. Although she chooses her "boy clothes" for home and feels more comfortable in them, she prefers to be seen by her (female) classmates in "something girly". The parameters are already narrowing: fitting in means being the same, even when you're six. For my daughter it's all about her clothes, but I'm sure for other people's daughters, even at this age, it could just as easily be about weight, or too big a nose, or the wrong sort of freckles. The pressures we've been worrying about on older girls - girls of nine wearing make-up and so on - seem to be filtering steadily down the chain.
Where do parents fit in with all this? Not surprisingly, there's already work to show that girls are influenced by the messages their mothers give: it's not rocket science that a mother who is always on a diet and worried about her weight is likely to infect her daughter with similar concerns. But don't let's beat ourselves up: no woman is an island, and who is the superhuman among us who can extricate herself from the mesh of media hype, with body beautiful images on every billboard in every town, and say she is untouched by it all? We don't want to be frumpy - or fat - but nor do we want to be obsessed, or our daughters will suffer, too. And suffer they certainly do: there's plenty of evidence, says Hartley Brewer, that children who restrict their calorific intake too much could be affecting their development. Kids' brains need fats to grow - children whose diets don't contain the right nutrients (including fats) could end up with not just physical problems, but mental-health problems as well.
Of course, parents give messages not just in what they eat, but in what they buy. When my first daughter was born 12 years ago she spent her first eight or so months in a (grubby and yellowing) sleepsuit: I thought one of the few easy bits of having a small baby was that she could wear the same sort of outfit day and night. But when my youngest daughter was born three years ago, I was suddenly aware of the swelling racks of baby head-to-toe ensembles that had crept into the shops: and peer pressure being what it is (at every age) I succumbed and at one month Catriona was already the proud owner of several dresses, tiny pairs of tights and even (oh-so unnecessary!) miniature shoes. As she's the youngest of four, I only found the time to dress her in one of these scaled-down catwalk outfits for the occasional wedding, but some babies never face the day without an entirely coordinated look, even down to a matching hat and gloves: all usually way beyond their years, and with far more of an eye on teenage trends than infant comfort. Can we really be that surprised when these little clothes-horses start to fret about the way they look four and five years down the line? Or even start to ask about make-up, or having their tummy buttons pierced?
Perhaps the most important message to take away from all this is that while peer pressure may now be at work even earlier than we'd realised, and while the media may refuse to budge an inch in the pressures it ladles on to our children, there is still one place we can influence how our children feel, and that's at home. Psychologists have long told us that it's not only outside influences that matter, so I guess it's up to all to teach our girls - and boys too for that matter - that it's what inside that counts.
Fat is a girlish issue: the facts
· The number of obese children in this country has tripled in 20 years: 10% of six-year-olds are now obese, rising to 17% of 15-year-olds.
· In November 2004, the government said cutting obesity was a top priority, with new measures introduced including restrictions on junk food advertising to children.
· A January 2005 Bliss magazine survey of 2,000 teenage readers found 92% were very unhappy with their bodies and four in 10 had considered cosmetic surgery.
· Editor Chantelle Horton called the survey's results "a 21st-century tragedy". A third of respondents said they were overweight, and seven out of 10 said they would be 100% happier if they could lose a stone. More than half said their mothers "worried and moaned" about their weight.
· The UK Eating Disorders Association takes 20,000 calls a year from teenage girls obsessed with weight-loss issues.
· Anorexia and bulimia are most common among girls aged between 15 and 25, but they can occur in girls as young as seven or eight. As many as 28% of all schoolchildren may have an eating disorder.
· A survey of 900 women aged 18-24 in 1998 found that 89% wished that magazines would use more average-sized models. And 63% wanted fewer dieting features.
· Research from the National Obesity Forum shows the power of parental influence: 70% of seven- to 16-year-olds said they would be more likely to eat healthily and get active if their parents did the same.