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Children, body image and eating disorders

childreneatingdisordersOne in 10 children would pop a diet pill to lose weight, according to a shocking new survey. And a poor body image is damaging a generation of children – but how can parents reverse the trend?

We all want our children to have idyllic childhoods, but a terrible epidemic is sweeping through schools, clubs and homes. It could be happening every time your child sees their favourite celebrity on TV, or looks at pictures of models in magazines – or even at their own reflection in the mirror.

Alarmingly, it’s not only teenagers who are susceptible to anxiety about their body image, young children are affected, too. This anxiety may be reinforced by images and information they receive daily about the ‘perfect body’. In fact, the problem is so serious that MPs Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone founded the government’s Body Confidence campaign ( The campaign is already gaining momentum to combat the potentially damaging effects of body image issues on youngsters.

Report sends warning against ‘quick fixes’
Health and fitness charity, Central YMCA ( and the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England in Bristol, ( recently launched a report, which revealed disturbing results. Some of the most alarming findings, says the chief executive of Central YMCA, Rosi Prescott, are the prevalence of ‘quick fixes’. ‘It’s frightening that one in 10 boys and girls would take laxatives or diet pills – an unhealthy, ineffective and potentially dangerous way to lose weight,’ says Rosi.

‘Given that the average age of interviewees was 14, we were also shocked that as many as half of the respondents admitted that they’ve been on a diet; both boys and girls admitted that their peers at school have body image problems.

‘This impacts on self-esteem, lowers confidence and affects wellbeing. Body image anxiety can lead to exclusion from exercise, sports and fitness – the very things that can help boost wellbeing.’

And now, body image anxiety is crossing the gender divide. ‘The male ideal perpetuated by fashion, advertisers and the media tends towards lean muscularity and the six-pack,’ continues Rosi. ‘This ideal which is promoted is often unattainable for many males, but can force them down the route of taking steroids.’

figureitoutFigure it out
But why are children going to such quick-fix extremes to alter their body shapes in the first place? Shouldn’t good health be the focus – or better still, playing outdoors with not a care in the world?

‘Despite the watchful gaze of parents and teachers, young people are influenced by the bombardment of images they see in the media, and celebrity culture,’ says Rosi. ‘Last year, we polled the public to find out who they blame most for perpetuating the whole body image ideal and 85% thought celebrity culture was most culpable – the most influential sector.’

It is a sentiment echoed by Mary George, a spokeswoman at Beat (, the leading UK charity for people with eating disorders and their families.

‘Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses and rarely is there a single cause,’ says Mary. ‘However, we are bombarded daily with images; and a preoccupation with weight and shape is a key feature of current popular culture.

‘The attention paid to celebrities’ bodies has increased the pressure young people feel as they seek to establish their own identities – at a time when their own bodies are growing and changing. Celebrities are scrutinised in the media for flaws as much as for their attractiveness, leading young people to consider their own bodies in a critical light, too.’

What is an eating disorder?
It’s a period of illness that is characterised by potentially damaging behaviour around eating and weight control, which may become obsessive. Anyone can develop an eating disorder. Although treatable, eating disorders are complex because each situation is unique.

Anorexia is a serious and complex progressive psychological illness. The anorexic deliberately suppresses appetite to prevent weight gain and tries to lose weight through controlled food intake, the use of laxatives and/or diuretics and excessive exercise. With the correct treatment and support, a full recovery is possible.

Bulimia nervosa is linked to the controlled intake and elimination of food, with symptomsof overeating, self-induced vomitingand fasting.

Learning lessons about body image

But altering your shape isn’t about wishful thinking; children as young as eight – possibly younger – are dieting. If age is a concern, so too is the increase in the number of people seeking help, according to Mary, as Beat is attempting to reach out to pupils of school age.

‘We are now working in schools to give young people skills in the area of media literacy – learning how to interpret images, understand their powerful influences, and how to be resilient to their potentially harmful aspects,’ she says.

But a societal sea change is required. ‘Parents and schools have a part to play,’ says Rosi. ‘As an organisation, we’re calling for mandatory body image lessons in schools, not just secondary school, but at primary school age. But young people don’t live in a vacuum, there are other sectors of society which should play their part.’

Mary adds: ‘We know that eating disorders can be beaten – and our understanding of the role that body image plays in this is crucial.

‘We may not be able to change the way brains are hard wired, but we can challenge the cultural ideals that have become toxic to a whole generation of young people.’

Beat also has social networking pages on Facebook, a Twitter page and a video channel on YouTube. Pupils who are old enough for such sites can add Beat as a friend, join the group to lend their support and the message that eating disorders can be beaten.

 georgieandmum‘I was on the road to killing myself but now I’ve recovered’
Charlotte Bevan, 45, lives in Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, with husband Christopher and daughters Emily and Georgie. Georgie was diagnosed with anorexia at 12, but has now recovered.For Charlotte, it wasn’t an instant recognition of her child’s problem, but more a dawning realisation that something was terribly wrong.

‘Georgie had been studying “healthy” eating and nutrition, and had changed her diet. She had lost weight – not a huge amount – but we realised that she had a problem with eating and drinking anything. She was withdrawn, deeply unhappy and not at all like the lovable, cheery, witty child she’d been six months earlier,’ says Charlotte.

‘The main way anorexia manifests itself is, of course, weight loss, but this can be difficult to spot when a child is growing and going through puberty and when you see your child every day. Other signs are social disconnection, a strange perception about body shape and size, and an increase in exercise and attention to schoolwork, (with almost a mania as well as phobias creeping in that are more commonly associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or similar autistic spectrum disorders).

‘At first we tried to reason with her and persuade her to start eating properly. We were all emotional and convinced it was our fault. We got angry, cried, reasoned and we stood, mutely, bleakly, in the corner hoping that she’d want to get better. This was all ineffective.

‘About a week after diagnosis, she stopped drinking so we had her admitted to a private hospital. She was an inpatient for four weeks and an outpatient for a further three weeks.She then returned to school for 10 days, but lost weight and her mental state declined, so she stayed at home for the next six months, while we started to refeed her.

‘I was surprised to find out that anorexia, indeed all eating disorders, is a brain problem, rather than a food problem. The food phobia was merely an expression of a sick brain. Therefore, discussions about food, calories and fat, merely heightened her anxiety. It made her very upset to discuss nutrition in any form, although she was obsessed by it.

‘Anorexia is one of those illnesses where everyone has an opinion and a suggestion from “Just get her to eat” –  (if only it was that simple!) – to “it’s all about control”. Some friends and family were quietly supportive, some left us alone as they couldn’t cope with it, some were wonderful, interested and kind. While Georgie found help and solace on the For Young People (FYP) forum that is provided by Beat, Charlotte applauds two net resources. Around the Dinner Table Forum, (, which is a web forum for parents and caregivers of eating disorder patients. Run by Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (FEAST), is a 24-hour forum.

‘With the help of the wonderful parents on the forum, I was pointed to the latest research and evidence-based treatment, and had a lot of shoulders to “cyber” cry on. It made Georgie’s recovery possible,’ says Charlotte. ‘I also had a very understanding GP, who let me forge ahead with family-based treatment, while keeping
a close eye on Georgie’s physical health.’

Georgie, 14, says: ‘Having an eating disorder was an emotionally terrifying ordeal. Constantly feeling alone, afraid and dishonest, I was never happy with myself or others. Looking back, I feel regretful and naïve, but I feel proud of what I was and what I’ve become. I’m a stronger person, with a broader outlook on life. I can accept that I’m never going to be perfect, but I feel I can achieve so much more now. I have a greater perspective and I can prioritise things better. I was on the road to killing myself, now I guess it doesn’t matter if my hair is parted on the left or the right. To girls, I’d say always believe in yourself, even on the worst of days, you are not what your worst doubts are. Everyone is beautiful in their own way, don’t try to change that. Dropping a dress size really isn’t worth it in the end.’

Help for you…
Websites you can visit:

 Live-in recovery resources:

  • The Phoenix Centre in Cambridge is a specialist service for the treatment of teenagers with eating disorders, mostly Anorexia Nervosa. Visit or call 01223 884 314.
  • The Priory Group is one of Europe’s leading independent providers of care for adults and children with a wide range of disorders. Go to or call 0845 277 4679.

How families can help…

  • How do your dieting habits impact on your children? Be aware of the effects of obsessing about diet, points, calories or the consequences of skipping meals.
  • ‘Parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children don’t have negative feelings towards their bodies,’ says Rosi Prescott, chief executive of Central YMCA. ‘Encouraging their children to play, to do some kind of activity is a great way for young people to improve their self-esteem, wellbeing, and ultimately, body confidence.
  • ‘Parents may also have their own body image issues. It’s important to provide them with the right tools,’ says Rosi. ‘We’ve recently developed the web page which provides information parents may want to share with their children.’ The campaign aims to promote better body confidence for all. Its goal is for everyone to feel healthy in mind, body and spirit and be more body confident.
  • ‘Parents should think about their own attitude towards body image, and should not be discussing diets in front of their children and friends. It’s also important  to encourage eating meals together as  a family,’ says Mary.

JO SAYSJo says… ‘We’re seeing an 80% increase in people being admitted to hospital for eating disorders. We look at what’s in the media at the moment: billboards, airbrushing, deceiving and the serious lack of self-esteem in girls. Where’s all that coming from?’



This article was first published in at home’s ’Parenting with Jo Frost’ July 2011. [Read the digital edition here]


Images: Getty

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