July 25, 2012

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

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

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 

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.

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