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What price perfection?

This month, alarming research was published showing that eating disorders now plague very young children. The study’s findings included a child only 5 years of age who was hospitalised with Early Onset Eating Disorder (EOED).

It was Dr Sloane Madden from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, New South Wales, who raised the alarm: “What we are seeing clinically, and what is being reported anecdotally around the world is that kids are presenting in greater numbers at a younger age,” he said in a recent interview. “They certainly will tell you that they believe that they are fat, that they want to be thinner, and they have no insight into the fact that they are malnourished and they are literally starving themselves to death.”

Dr Madden went on to say that the number of EOED cases is expected to rise unless there is a change in the media’s obsession with fat and weight. “I think that there needs to be a move away from this focus on weight and numbers and body fat, and a focus on healthy eating and exercise,” he said in a Sydney Morning Herald interview. “You can see that in current (television) programs like The Biggest Loser, where it is all about numbers and weight, it’s not helpful for those people and it’s certainly not helpful for this group of kids.”

Not helpful either is Australia’s Next Top Model. Early reports about this season’s show indicate it will, once again, feature bullying and an unhealthy preoccupation with weight. In the first episode, to air on April 28, Perry tells his fellow judges – the model agent Priscilla Leighton-Clark and former model Charlotte Dawson – that some contestants look like “Frankenstein”, “a wild pig”, “fat”, “a moose” and that one has “something spaz [spastic] with her teeth”. All this from a show hosted and produced by Sarah Murdoch, a member of the Federal Government’s newly formed advisory group on body image.

Richard Eckersley in his excellent book Well and Good – Morality, Meaning and Happiness voices the concerns of many:

No sensible person would argue that there is a simple, direct relationship between media content and people’s behaviour. But nor should any sensible person accept the proposition, implied by some cultural commentators, that what we see, hear and read in the media has no effect on us. Maybe children today are savvy, sophisticated consumers of media – as we are often told – but this does not mean that we can be complacent about media influences.”

It is more important than ever that we give our young people the skills they need to deconstruct the many media images they are bombarded with every day. With this in mind, the following books and web sites provide ways to begin this essential dialogue with the young people you care for:

Web sites

Enlighten Education – http://enlighteneducation.com: My company’s web site. We deliver in-school workshops for girls on self-esteem, body image, managing friendships, personal safety and career pathways for girls.

The Butterfly Effect – http://enlighteneducation.edublogs.org: My blog, featuring weekly posts targeted to educators and parents of teen girls. Check out “Danielle Miller’s videos”, “My Book Collections” and the “Articles of interest” page for suggestions.

Girlpower Retouch – http://demo.fb.se/e/girlpower/retouch: A site that shows how easy it is to distort the images we see in magazines to change someone’s appearance.

Jean Kilbourne – http://jeankilbourne.com: Writer and documentary maker who explores the way women and girls are portrayed in advertising.

The Beautiful Women Project – http://www.beautifulwomenproject.org: American art project celebrating diversity and real everyday beauty.

Girl Guiding UK – http://www.girlguiding.org.uk: The section “Girls Shout Out” has some particularly interesting reports on teenage mental health, active citizenship and the pressures girls feel growing up.

Kids Free 2B Kids – http://kf2bk.com: Australian site that raises awareness about the damage caused by the sexualisation of children and acts to combat this.

Young Media Australia – http://youngmedia.org.au: Australian organisation with a particular interest in developing media literacy in young people.

American sites that help young people develop media literacy skills to combat unhelpful media messages about beauty and body image:

American sites offering resources and professional development for teachers who want to nurture media literacy in the classroom:

Books and magazines

For girls

New Moon Girls – American magazine aimed at 8- to 12-year-old girls, with accompanying web-based activities: http://www.newmoon.com

Indigo 4 Girls – Australian Magazine aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds that describes itself as a “positive, body friendly, age appropriate magazine for girls”.  http://indigo4girls.com

Girl Stuff: Your full-on guide to the teen years – Book by Kaz Cooke, Penguin Group Australia, 2007

Body Talk: A Power Guide For Girls, Elizabeth Reid Boyd and Abigail Bray, Hodder Headline

The Girlosophy series by Anthea Paul, Allen and Unwin

The Girlforce series by Nikki Goldstein, ABC Books

For Parents and Teachers

Faking It – A special publication that deconstructs the female image in magazines, available through Women’s Forum Australia: www.womensforumaustralia.org

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel – Book by Jean Kilbourne, Free Press

The Beauty Myth – Book by Naomi Wolf, Vintage

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body – Book by Courtney E. Martin, Free Press

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture – Book by Ariel Levy, Schwartz Publishing

Well and Good – Book by Richard Eckersley, Text Publishing

It is also more important than ever that we all take stock and ask ourselves whether we too are getting caught up in playing the compare and despair game. Many of us tell our children they do not need to change in order to be beautiful, while we rush for Botox. We tell them inner beauty counts, while we devour magazines that tell us beauty is really only about air-brushed perfection after all. If even the grown-ups are struggling, is it any wonder that our daughters are? Our children cannot be what they cannot see.

It is up to us to show them what the state of “I am me, I am okay” looks like.

Published inBody ImageBullyingEating DisordersEnlighten EducationMagazinesMediaParentsPower of WordsResources

5 Comments

  1. As a father of one little girl, 4 years old, this sort of thing really stresses me out. One problem with handling this topic is that it is double edged. Australian children are being reported as amongst the most overweight in the world, so there are a lot of “don’t get fat” messages coming through, and while this is a healthy message in most cases, as shown above, it can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.

    I guess (emphasis on the word “guess”) it comes back to teaching kids to enjoy eating a healthy balanced diet, and helping them to understand what they are seeing on TV, but with a mind that young, it’s so hard to know which messages are being remembered and which are being ignored.

    It’s not helped by the fact that just about everything on commercial TV is designed to sell a product at any cost, regardless of the damage the messages might be causing to children.

  2. Ella

    When I first became ill with an eating disorder I was 12 years old. I’ve lost my teenage years to this debilitating and frankly, pretty terrifying disease. I can’t imagine losing my childhood as well.

    I think we’re going to see the mortality rate (already sitting at 20% for eating disorders) jump drastically if professionals aren’t educated in eating disorders, especially eating disorders in children, far, far more than they already are and if these kids do not get the help they need sooner rather than later.

    Yesterday I had to take a friend of mine to emergency as she was dehydrated from gastro. She also has anorexia, so she was in pretty sickly shape. The doctor who treated her was BEYOND stupid, telling her that the dessert (with dinner) was good, that she needed to be fattened up a bit, etc. It reached the point where the doctor was asking ME what she needed to be tested for (hello potassium, sodium, etc. have you not encountered dehydration before? Just because she’s here as a mental health client doesn’t mean she’s stupid or not dehydrated) After an assessment through Mental Health NSW, my friend was told that mental health in the Eastern Suburbs does not help anorexia. Another one falls through the cavernous cracks in our mental health system.

    As an early childhood worker, I also work with five year olds sometimes and have them around the centre I work. At a previous centre I worked at, there was one little girl who wouldn’t eat her lunch because “she didn’t want to get fat”. That brings chills down my spine.

    I don’t think any good can come from 5 year olds suffering with this disease, but maybe it’ll help people realise that there is NO choice in developing an eating disorder. Surely a child could not understand the ramifications, or “want” to develop an eating disorder.

  3. Sonia

    I attended a 5 year old birthday party on the weekend and everyone was having a great time until the party food came out … I number of the little girls protested that they couldn’t eat the party pies or frankfurts as they had “too many calories and made them too fat.” OUCH!!!! Sadly two of the mums agreed … OUCH again!!!

    It is evident in the comments and actions above that as a society we are becoming too complacent. We need to step up and model that there is so much more too life.

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