WHAT DO you think of your body? Don't tell me, you'd like to be 8lbs lighter

There is no longer any such thing as "anorexics" and "normal people". We are all, to some extent or another, sucked into body anxiety. "It used to be thought that either you had an eating disorder or you didn't," says Dianne Jade, principal at the National Centre for Eating Disorders. "But now we know that it's a continuum. Nine out of 10 people have dissatisfaction with their bodies."

Otherwise sensible, intelligent people who are outraged by a 15-minute delay of a train are prepared to waste hours dwelling on their perceived imperfections. Only this week I was having a competition with a friend (male) to see who had the most stomach blubber.

"Mine's bigger," I said squeezing the flesh between my fingers. "No mine's bigger," he said, yanking his. "Well if we were measuring thighs as well, I'd be far fatter," I said. "You're lucky," he said. "I wish I had chunkier thighs, it would make my stomach look smaller." By day this friend is a responsible 34-year-old consultant, working with multi-million pound businesses.

Scientific estimates say that people overestimate their own size in relation to others by at least 10 per cent. Less scientific, a health editor mate of mine reckons that every normal-weight person would like to be 8lbs lighter; never more, never less. I scoffed until I thought of myself; 9st 1lb but in my dreams I am a far more glamorous eight and a half. It's true, 8lbs lighter and life would be perfect.

Of course, this is the kind of thinking we should have left behind at 14. It is one of the disadvantages of our generation's extended youth. As well as retaining an irresponsible, hedonistic lifestyle well into what used to be called middle age, we are also retaining that adolescent preoccupation with how we look.

"It is a kind of neurotic perfectionism," says Dr Pat Hartley, eating disorders specialist in the Department of Psychiatry at Manchester University "We are never satisfied with what we achieve, so if we reach our goals, we move the goal posts." In other words, even if you lose that 8lbs there will be something else wrong when you get there.

It is possible to break out of this boring cycle but you have to do it yourself. "Five-year programmes were conducted in Canada and Norway, going into schools and trying to inform and educate pupils into healthier attitudes to size," says Dianne Jade. "The results were very poor. The powerful messages about weight are almost impossible to override on a collective level. But the evidence is that you can do something on a personal level."

The points below may convince you that losing those 8lbs will not make life better - but then you have to face up to all the other problems that you were putting off until you were a size 10. Yikes.

1. Practical

i) Always have three proper meals a day. Missing a meal encourages the body to feel deprived and the mind to obsess over food.

ii) Don't go on a diet; it's unhealthy.

iii) Take exercise. Exercise boosts endorphin levels which encourages you to feel good about your body.

iv) Don't cut out fat, cut out the crap.

2. Psychological

i) Look at your positive achievements on a daily basis. Every time you catch yourself with the words "thighs" in your head, force yourself to reflect on something positive.

ii) Confront your fear. "For example," says Dianne Jade, "we might get a client who will never tuck their jumper into their trousers to do so." Wear tight clothes on fat days and see if anyone else notices.

iii) In one final act of self-obsession, write a history of your fluctuating weight and attitudes to weight. Realise how boring it is and then throw it away. This is very cathartic.