An article in Mondayâ€™s Daily Mail reported the latest in a series of research studies on body image and body confidence in young people, and the results were unsurprising. This particular study, of 31,354 boys and girls aged 10-15, conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit, added to the increasingly loud alarm bells ringing about how young people view themselves, and how we have come to this point. According to the study, schoolgirls as young as 12 are unhappy with their weight and are skipping meals in order to be thinner; half of 12-13 year olds said they wanted to be thinner; and 58% of girls in Year 10 (ie aged 14 or 15) said that they wanted to lose weight. In case you were wondering whether in fact this was an appropriate response to an epidemic of childhood obesity, the researchers set the record firmly straight: â€œAn analysis of the characteristics of the year 10 females shows that most wanting to lose weight are within the limits of â€˜healthyâ€™ weight, and some are already underweight.â€
The reaction of Beat, the eating disorder charity, was quite straightforward: â€œOne of the key features of current popular culture is a preoccupation with weight and shape … The fascination with celebrities, their bodies, clothes and appearance has all increased the pressure that young people feel … Celebrities are scrutinised for flaws and imperfections, leading young people to consider their own bodies in a critical light too.â€ Young teenagers are at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives, as their bodies are changing and they are developing their own identities; it is no wonder that low self-esteem and poor body image result from this obsession that we seem to have as a society.
So … with the Olympics almost upon us, we have an opportunity to celebrate a different range of female shapes, rather than the Ã¼ber-thin, airbrushed sea of images of models in which our young people are drowning. Sportspeople are of course obsessive and obsessed too, but their obsession lies in what their body can do, not what it looks like. With only two days to go before the opening ceremony of London 2012, it is a fair bet that all our Olympians are focusing, totally and utterly, on getting their bodies and their minds into exactly the right place to perform extraordinary physical feats. Yet even with this focus, danger lies not far off. A worrying and disappointing rash of pictures of British athletes in sexualised poses have been scattered over the Sunday papers â€“ some in adverts, others simply illustrating articles. Britainâ€™s beach volleyball pair have QR codes on their briefs, which effectively encourage spectators to take pictures of their backsides. Jessica Ennis was criticised recently for weighing too much â€“ a statement that should be laughable.
Our Olympians have a real opportunity over the next few days (and, hopefully, weeks and months, in the afterglow of a successful Games) to be real, realistic, amazing role models for our young people in how they act, think, speak and behave. How they treat their bodies â€“ and how they allow other people to treat them â€“ is an enormous part of this responsibility.