If you thought that girls became discontented with their body size with the onset of puberty, think again: Julia and Polly are six years old. They are normal healthy children, yet they and their classmates at an independent girls school in Dorking, Surrey, all want to lose weight.
Eight-year-old Harriet, Polly's sister, is beanpole-thin. She explains that she rarely eats breakfast and 'I often only have a drink for lunch because anyhow school lunch is awful.' Later, she talks about a fat lady she read about 'who was sick 10 times a day because she ate lots of crisps and bananas'. Her classmate Pippa, Julia's older sister, shrewdly says 'crash dieting is the worst way to lose weight because you can get stretch marks'.
It is impossible to tell which, if any, will develop a full-blown eating disorder later in life. What is clear is that, at this young age, all these girls have a startling awareness of body image and a sophisticated knowledge of dieting.
'If we're looking at preventive programmes of eating disorders, we have to target children aged nine or 10 at the latest,' says Rachel Bryant-Waugh, principal clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. 'If we try and tackle teenagers, then it is too late.'
Dr Bryant-Waugh is co-ordinator of the eating disorder research team that every day deals with children as young as seven with eating disorders, including anorexia. 'Unhealthy eating attitudes are being formed very early on,' she says.
For this reason, the charity Diet Breakers has set up the Diet Breakers Roadshow which, since April, has been travelling throughout Britain visiting parents and children in schools during term-time and community groups such as Girl Guides and Rotary clubs over the summer holidays.
Social workers, counsellors, psychotherapists and mothers will show how a new-born child eats when it is hungry and stops when it is sated. But factors such as friends and family on diets, puddings offered as emotional consolation, and media messages saying that rake-thin is beautiful all conspire against a normal relationship with food from the moment a child starts to communicate. Fat-hating attitudes may lead to full eating disorders a few years down the line.
Diet Breakers particularly wants to help parents understand the possible effect of their eating habits on their children. It makes sense that, in the impressionable years, if a child wants to copy Mummy's make-up she will want to copy Mummy's diet, too. All the girls are able to talk about their parents' diets and to a large extent seem to have taken on their values.
Harriet and Polly's mother, Bridget, is very slim yet Harriet thinks: 'Mummy's sort of thin but if I was her I'd soon go on a diet. She's on a fruit and water diet. She hardly eats anything at meal times and it really puts you off your food. Daddy's really big, he won't stop eating. He should put off a lot of weight. But he's rather lazy. Women try harder to lose weight than men.'
But it is important that parents should not be seen as the sole influence on children's food attitudes. Nine-year-old Abigail relates a depressing but familiar story from school: 'There's a person at school who's on a diet. She's thin but a teacher told her that she would end up like her mum who's fat, so now she's trying to lose weight.'
And Dr Bryant-Waugh is anxious not to point the finger. 'We must be careful not to blame individuals. Many excellent mothers still have eating problems themselves and are all too keen to blame themselves. We should try and change children for the future and not dwell too much on the past.'
The media is inevitably seen as an enemy in this battle. Women's and teenage magazines - which pre-teen children have easy access to - and television promote the message that thin girls are more successful and more popular, especially with the opposite sex. For most girls, who will never match up to the perfect model body, it is not a question of if they will start dieting but when.
Pippa, a keen swimmer, explains: 'Girls become really worried about their weight at about 10; maybe girls start dieting because of boys.' Eight-year-old Kirsty, whose mother is an aerobics teacher, adds: 'There's a lot of pressure on girls but boys don't have to look so nice.' These gender stereotypes, already so firmly formed, are something that Diet Breakers is keen to work against.
Whatever the mental effect of holding these opinions so early, the physical effect of restricting food intake at this age is a very real long-term health risk - a higher proportion of fat in the diet is crucial for growing children. The mothers are keen that their children should eat properly and well, but when they are not there, peer pressure often prevails. Abigail says: 'I want to eat less and I need to do more exercise. I'd like to change my tummy because I'm too fat.' Kirsty does a huge amount of exercise - 11 hours gym and half an hour swimming a week - to give her the shape she wants.
The Diet Breakers Roadshow team is trying to give children some evidence and understanding to live comfortably in our anti-fat culture. One team member, Beverley Bramwell, explains: 'We are telling children that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. We are encouraging schools to take children taunting an overweight child seriously, just as they take racist taunts seriously. We talk to children about how they would treat a fat person and help than sort fact from fantasy. I want the children to stop thinking in terms of food as good and bad.
'It's good that the children are so well up on eating fruit and vegetables but they are now too aware of factors like fat and calories. Harriet, another nine-year-old, said that she tries not to eat bad things but she can't resist treacle pudding. What a pity that at her age she can't just enjoy it.'
'Diet Breakers' can be contacted at Church Cottage, Barford St Michael, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX15 0UA.
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