Youth is waisted

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When I was 11, I didn't actually have a body. Not many of us boys did. We had knees, constantly covered in scars earned while playing Zorro in hawthorn bushes. We had hair, which perpetually required cutting and combing. A year or so later, one very specific anatomical detail began to assert itself, but in a way that suggested autonomy from the rest. So unless you were very obese or completely rake-like (we had one of each in our class) the notion of "body" meant nothing. One possessed inherent qualities and defects, such as speed, ball skills, clumsiness, a good memory, or flatulence - but these characteristics were not related to the shell of flesh we inhabited.

Such unawareness now seems like Eden before the serpent. This week, a survey conducted by the Health Education Authority showed that half of today's 11 and 12-year-old girls, and a third of boys, are anxious about the shape and weight of their bodies. Felix and James are coming home from Saturday soccer on a wet park pitch, and, instead of dutifully treading the mud into all the carpets and demanding chips, are retiring gloomily to their bedrooms to contemplate the tiny rolls of fat on their pre-pubescent tums and wish themselves slim.

This is, of course, a bad thing. Life is already stressful for the average 11-year-old. Will my team beat the Arsenal? Am I a dweeb? What is a dweeb? What will Mummy say if I don't get into St Olave's? All this is hard enough for them without the extra burden of having to worry about the calories in a Wagon Wheel.

We are seeing, I think, a leaching down of adult pre-occupations to our children. At 40, my father wore a suit for smart and slacks for casual. A new scarlet cardigan was a fashion statement. His son, however, opens his copy of Arena to discover five pages of beautiful men in various stages of hoicking their knickers down, under the caption "is there a pair of pants that guarantees permanent pull-'em-off pulling power?".

And if poor Felix and James never see Arena, they may well pick up the message from an older sister, invited by her favourite journal to focus on "cute buns" - the best bottoms apparently possessing a dimple on either side. In 1966, bottoms were for comedy only, as Norman Wisdom fans will tell you.

What shall we do? Do I hear a shout of "Get thee behind me, Satan. Time to resist rampant commercialism"? Or perhaps a chorus of support for encouraging alternative anti-competitive cultures (like a return to hippiedom)? After all, you don't get many cute buns contests among the tree-dwellers of Newbury.

But romantic hopes of keeping our children in the innocence of an uncompetitive Eden are doomed. The serpent has already taken up residence. And there is only one way to evict it. Only when we adults are unconcerned about how fat we are, how unfit, how old, how unattractive, only then can we expect our children to accept themselves. Until we permit frumpy Fergie the same latitude that we allow delicious Di; until we embrace death and decrepitude with equanimity, our children will worry about their bodies.

But we are not going to change - so maybe we just have to accept things as they are. In the same mag that thoughtfully itemised the essential qualities of the cute-bunned male, film star Alicia Silverstone revealed: "I was a childhood frump, but look at me now." Meanwhile, Hello! magazine's cover featuring a glamorous Duchess of York ("I was a frump five minutes ago, but look at me now") promises virtually instant redemption.

What our children therefore need is cosmetic help. We already spend a fortune on their clothes and shoes, so we could fork out a bit for relatively inexpensive plastic surgery - nose jobs, temporary tummy tucks and (for boys) bun dimpling. Junior sessions on the sunbeds and the treadmills at the family fitness centre could work wonders. Stop telling Felix not to worry, and get him a year's membership of Bodymass or Lifeforce. Embrace the serpent.