Boom! Preachy headline. But y’know what? I stand by that. Because this morning, I posted the above statistic online: that one in four seven-year-old girls have tried to lose weight.
I thought that in itself was pretty depressing – but then my very good friend Rebecca (whose research on eating disorders is going to be fascinating, I can promise you) posted this link in the comments which made me want to grab the nearest set of scales and lob them forcefully at the poor ol’ postman.
Which I should’ve seen coming, really – because I’d taken today off to relax. As usual, that’s a big ol’ cue for something to come along and make me hulk out. So here it is.
According to new research from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the number of children and teenagers in the UK hospitalised due to illnesses such as anorexia has increased from 1,718 in 2007-8 to over 6,500 in 2010-11 (the most recent years with available statistics.)
Let me clarify: that’s more than three times as many children hospitalised for eating disorders in three years.
And if you’re not already horrified enough, 443 of those children are under 13. That’s also triple the number found three years earlier.
Now, I have no head for numbers, and when I read statistics, I zone out – so let me put it to you thus. Know one child? Imagine you’re told they’ve got an illness they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their life.
That, times six and a half thousand.
And we’re only talking cases resulting in hospitalisation here. That’s not to mention those treated but not hospitalised; those untreated or undiagnosed; those considered ‘of healthy weight’ or heavier who can’t possibly be suffering from an eating disorder because they’re not thin enough; and, of course, the estimated 1.6 million adults in the UK suffering from eating disorders.
Let’s put those figures alongside the numbers from the Reflections on Body Image report, published in 2012, which found that:
- Between one third and half of young girls fear becoming fat and engage in dieting or binge eating.
- Girls as young as five years old are worried about the way they look and their size.
- One in four seven year old girls have tried to lose weight at least once.
- One third of young boys aged 8-12 are dieting to lose weight.
In other words, our culture is making our children sick.
And this issue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Eating disorders and poor body image don’t just affect what you see in the mirror, or the number on the scales – they go on to impact on the way the world is run. This doesn’t only affect women, by any means – but according to research by the American Psychological Association, women who are high-self objectifiers have lower self- and political-efficacy.
In other words, they don’t see themselves as having the ability to bring about change, either personally, or politically.
And this is where it all ties together.
By buying into shame culture, the diet industry, celebrity gossip rags and their oozing circle of shame, the idea that we’re defined by our bodies is going to become ever more entrenched. That’s made painfully clear by the fact that – and I’m aware I’m repeating myself, but sod it, I’m mad – over 6,500 children and teenagers were hospitalised for eating disorders in 2010-11. As many as half of young girls fear becoming fat.
And if they’re self-objectifying in this way, they’re less likely to talk about politics, or question society, or go for high-powered jobs, or take control of their own lives in the way that they irrefutably deserve to. Which means the whole change thing I bang on about?
Not gonna happen.
If we continue at the rate we’re going, our children will have worse lives than ours. I’m pretty sure that’s not how this whole thing is meant to work. And while it’s easy to say it’s the media, and it’s the diet industry, and so on – hell, I do – but there are a whole number of things we, individually, need to be doing to screw this noise and fix this awful situation.
Because when you snark, or call someone fat, you’re perpetuating it. If you call yourself fat, you’re perpetuating it (unless you’re doing it like me, of course. My fat comes with a side of awesome.) And if you let the way you perceive your body get in the way of you living your life to the full, you’re making things worse not just for yourself, but for future generations of women and men – because your actions and words don’t go unnoticed.
You have the power to disentangle yourself, and those around you, from this. You have the ability to love yourself, and care for your body in a way that makes your life better, not worse – and by doing so, you’ve got the potential to influence the people around you to do exactly the same.
Because I categorically do not want even one ‘fat day,’ or ‘thigh wobble’ on my part to lead to even one more child hospitalised for anorexia. I don’t want one more mother looking listlessly in the mirror to lead her little girl to a binge-purge disorder. And I don’t want any child to feel like they’re any less worthy of having a voice that warrants hearing because their body isn’t the same as the ones they see on TV.
In other words, I want kids to be kids – and I want people of all ages to live healthy, fulfilled, balanced lives, free from these Dantean circles of snark, shame and complete, tragic bullshit.
But it starts at home.
Please, please, pretty please (I’d pay you but I’m poor) – step back from shame culture. Don’t buy the trashy rags. Don’t snark about others. And for god’s sake, don’t shame yourself. Because otherwise, you’re complicit in this cycle that’s taking power, respect, and frankly, fun, from the people that are going to have to run this joint long after we’re gone.