Monday’s front page headlines in both The Sun and The Daily Mail led on a story first published in the previous day’s Sunday Telegraph about the rise in eating disorders in children under 13. The frustration of most articles dealing with figures, facts and medical science is that they tend to obscure the reality with bad mathematics (Ben Goldacre fulminates regularly about this in his blog ‘Bad Science‘), but this time we do have something concrete: 197 children between the ages of 5-9 were treated in hospital last year for eating disorders – a figure that is apparently almost double the number of the previous year.
None of the other figures in the article is compared in the same way, so it is difficult to attempt to draw a real pattern, especially as a number of the hospitals approached under the Freedom of Information Act refused to disclose information, and some only included in their numbers in-patients who were dangerously ill, rather than also adding in those being treated as out-patients. However, it is clear from this one figure alone – referring to children who are shockingly young to be suffering from psychological disorders – that we have a real issue on our hands.
How have we come to this situation? Although Great Ormond Street spokespeople were at pains to stress that there can be many reasons for disordered eating in young children, many parents of daughters in particular have noticed unhealthy attitudes to food/diets/appearance at early ages. Tanith Carey, whose book on the sexualisation of girls, ‘Where has my little girl gone?‘ I reviewed in an earlier blog, describes (also in the Daily Mail) how her own six-year old daughter has become very aware of calories and food and the effect on appearance – the message that being ‘too fat’ is a crime is already embedded in the mindsets of young girls. Inevitably, the distorted view of the world that results – the sense of never being able to attain what is necessary to be ‘good’ or even just ‘ok’ – is leading to intense psychological pressure. It is no wonder that eating disorders are on the rise amongst our children.
Who is to blame? Actually, we all are. We have all participated in creating a kind of fantasy world in which women are only seen to be successful if they are unrealistically thin and groomed – apparently effortlessly, but actually the result of several hours of attention. Newspapers and magazines need to stop falling into the trap of illustrating all their articles with gratuitous photos of women who meet these implausible criteria; advertisers need to stop airbrushing photos to make women seem extraordinary; people in the public eye (including the women whose photos are used) have a responsibility to stand up and be counted against the pressures that children face from the images around them; we need to be ultra-aware of the messages we are sending out about appearance, and we must prepare our children to be savvy to them too. Finally, feel free to refuse to buy for children any dolls, magazines, toys – anything, in fact – that perpetuate the myth.
Do something today to make a difference.