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Children’s desire to be thinner prompts call for parental awareness

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Source: The Guardian

Australian study of 4,000 finds children as young as eight are unhappy with their body size and want to lose weight

Parents are being urged to be mindful of their eating habits and comments they make about body image in front of their children after a government report found children as young as eight were unhappy with their body size.

At least two in five children aged 8-11 desired a thinner than average body size, the study of more than 4,000 children by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found.

Children were surveyed about their attitudes towards their body and their desired body size at age 8-9, and again at 10-11. Their mothers also answered questions about their child’s eating habits.

By age 10-11, most children reported trying to control their weight. Among underweight children, 16% of girls and 11% of boys wanted to be even thinner than they were, and half wanted to stay underweight.

Of the boys and girls who were dissatisfied with their body, the proportion of mothers who were concerned about their child eating too much or unhealthy food was greater among boys than girls, at 55% and 49% respectively.

Australia’s peak eating disorder support group, the Butterfly Foundation, said the findings highlighted the importance of parents in promoting self-esteem.

“We would encourage all parents to develop positive body image and a healthy relationship with food and exercise in order to be positive role models for their children and their teenagers,” foundation chief executive Christine Morgan said.

“This is a very serious issue for policy makers and health experts alike in Australia.

“The impact of health campaign messaging about child obesity, and the messages they receive from multiple sources every day about ideal body shape and size, is clearly producing an unintended consequence for young Australians.”

While there were no differences between boys and girls trying to lose weight, more boys tried to gain weight and fewer did nothing to control their weight compared with girls of the same age, the study found.

Regardless of their body mass, those children unhappy with their body were more likely to have poor physical health and socio-emotional well-being compared with children who were happy with their size.

A clinical psychologist specialising in eating disorders and body image, Dr Vivienne Lewis, said that as society became more image-obsessed, it was becoming more common for children to overhear conversations about diet and exercise.

“It’s difficult for parents, because obviously they want to educate their children about healthy eating,” Lewis, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Canberra, said.

“But children don’t always interpret things the way we intend them to.

“They often overhear conversations where adults are talking about diets, weight, good foods and bad foods – society is now constantly talking about body image and children can be very perceptive of that.”

At the end of 2012 the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, a federal government project managed by the foundation, completed a large review of the crossover between obesity and eating disorders policy and strategy.

That report found the strategies should be reviewed together to ensure obesity messages were not unwittingly causing harm by making vulnerable children overly concerned about their weight and diet.

Previous research from Harvard Medical School in the US found mothers who over-emphasised their concerns about body weight were significantly more likely to pass on these attitudes to their children.

Research demonstrated the importance of parents being aware of what they said, as well as the media they viewed in front of children, Lewis said.

“We also encourage parents emphasise to children that their body is just one part of who they are, and to talk about the amazing functions of their body,” she said.

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