Almost 80 per cent of pre-adolescent children are unhappy with their bodies, according to research.

Almost 80 per cent of pre-adolescent children are unhappy with their bodies, according to research.

Boys and girls as young as 11 are deeply unhappy with their size and want to be thinner, despite being of normal weight.

Psychologists said that the findings of the latest study were "alarming'' with some children desiring a figure which health experts consider to be emaciated and dangerously thin.

The findings were presented at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society in Manchester yesterday.

Researchers from Staffordshire University studied 276 boys and girls aged 11 to 14, with an average age of 12. The children were shown nine different body silhouettes and were asked to pick the one that most closely resembled their own. They were then asked to pick the figure that they would like to have.

On average, the girls picked as their ideal body shape a silhouette which was at least one size smaller than the one they had picked as most closely resembling their own.

The boys also picked an ideal body shape almost a size smaller than how they actually perceived themselves to be.

Overall, 78 per cent of the children were unhappy with their current size and only 18 per cent were satisfied with how they looked. Half of the boys wanted to be smaller while 20 per cent wanted a more muscular figure. Among the girls, 78 per cent wanted to be smaller.

Despite this, only 23 per cent of all the children involved were considered to be overweight.

The lead researcher, Michael Duncan, said: "What was worrying was that both boys and girls were picking shapes that were smaller than how they perceived themselves to be and some were picking the smallest silhouette, which was emaciated and would not be considered of average size or weight.

"We have a paradox in that we have a society that is getting fatter and a rapid increase in obesity, but then images in the media mean that everyone also wants to be thinner.

"It is alarming when you think these are children who are not yet into adolescence who are still desperately unhappy with the way they look.''

Doctors have reported treating eating disorders in children as young as six and seven who are already beginning to feel the pressure to be thin.

Mr Duncansaid: "The figures that the media present to young people as the ideal are completely unattainable. They are bombarded with the idea that girls should be thin and boys should have rippling six packs and that is adding to the problem.''

Research has shown that even the toys young children play with can influence the way they think about their figures.

Mr Duncan said the Action Man toy had increased its bulk substantially over the past decade and for a real woman to have the same proportions as a Barbie doll, the average female would have to reduce her hip size by 60 per cent and increase her leg length by 20 per cent.

"We need to be looking at the ideals that we are giving our children because this is becoming a real problem,'' he said.