It is a grim irony that while millions of children around the world have no choice but to eat scraps and drink contaminated water to stave off starvation, children in the West deliberately choose to go hungry to stave off "fatness". As their friends and families anticipate the unbridled gluttony of the Christmas festivities, there will be children, some as young as six years old, shrinking from the tables piled high with the iced what-nots and sugar-coated thingamajigs. They will look on in disgust as we scoff the immoderate array of offerings. They will be resisting what for the rest of us are irresistible. And if they do succumb, they will feel guilty. Guilty and fat.
The majority of females in the UK are preoccupie d with their weight. No less than 90 per cent of women diet at some time during their lives. And in one of the largest studies of schoolchildren up to age 16, 57 per cent of girls and almost 20 per cent of boys admitted dieting. Significantly, only four per cent of children are clinically overweight.
Most alarmingly, several studies have shown that dieting is a growing phenomenon among children long before they reach puberty. Research published in Paediatrics Journal in 1989 reported that 41 per cent of girls aged between seven and 12 had tried to diet as a way of losing weight, and did so with increased frequency as they got older.
Another survey, by Dr Andrew Hill of Leeds University, revealed nine-year-old girls dieting at the same rate as 14-year-olds. Girls, it should be pointed out, are not the only sufferers of poor body image. In another study of 400 nine-year-old girls and boys, Dr Hill found that the girls' preferred body shape put them 11 per cent below their average weight, while the boys put them 12 per cent above. The girls were worried about being too fat; the boys were haunted by the fear of scrawniness. Girls want to shrink while boys want to grow big and strong. Whichever way you look at it, significant numbers of children are unhappy with the way their bodies look.
"The issue is about sensitivity to weight and appearance," says Dr Hill, who is senior lecturer in behavioural science at Leeds. "And children are becoming sensitised to these issues at an early age. " But while both sexes change eating behaviour as a way of dealing with their dissatisfaction, he points out that there is a crucial difference between the boys' and girls' responses. "There is a socially acceptable pattern for girls and women. If they feel overweight, they experience low self-esteem and express that through dieting. Boys, however, are protected from this. They may not like their body image but it doesn't spill out into low self-esteem. Instead, they channel their feelings outward, using aggression and exercise as a way of dealing with it."
For infant school girls already worried about their weight, biology is stacked against them in the short term. Puberty, during which girls double their amount of body fat, can be an ordeal for those who already have a negative image of themselves. Andrew Hill says, "With puberty occurring at an earlier age than ever, between 101#218;2 and 12, we need to ask whether children are psychologically equipped to cope with the physical changes that come with it."
Dr Dee Dawson, medical director of the Rhodes Farm Clinic in north London for young people with eating disorders, says an increasing number of younger children are being referred to her clinic. She is presently treating a seven-year-old girl who first came at the age of six. While she cites the common culprits of waif-like supermodels as well as the ubiquity of diet culture in the media, she also lays some of the blame at the feet of schools and government nutrition guidelines.
"We've become a nation of health fanatics in terms of food and exercise. The combination of government recommendations on high-fibre and low-fat diets, the pro-vegetarian videos coming into schools and prevailing ideas about 'naughty foods' all put tremendous pressure on vulnerable kids," says Dr Dawson.
Her anti-vegetarian stance certainly flies in the face of contemporary eating trends, particularly among the young. She contends that schools allowing vegetarian organisations to show videos and discuss meatless diets are not aware that "first-class proteins that children need can only be derived from animal protein. I've talked to lots of people who have no idea of what children need as vegetarians. If you cut out meat, you have to know exactly what you're doing."
She is also concerned about nutritional misconceptions propagated in schools and in the media - and the dangers they hold for growing bodies. The bottom line, Dr Dawson insists, is that children will get ill if they do not get enough fat in their diet. It should constitute 30 per cent of their total intake, even though the government guidelines quote a figure of 10 per cent. While adults from the age of 25 need to watch their cholesterol levels, children do not and should not. "No child has high cholesterol," she says, "except, surprisingly, anorexic children, whose cholesterol levels are higher than obese people's." She also takes issue with the stress on high-fibre consumption for children, pointing out that too much fibre prevents the absorption of calcium, which could have disastrous consequences for the formation of young bones.
What is clear is that our children are becoming as obsessed by the look and weight of their bodies as the rest of us. That's not surprising. What is less often acknowledged is that so few parents and teachers are able to separate our own anxieties about obesity from the reality of children's physical and psychological well-being.
If we, and that includes the fashion industry and magazine editors, were more comfortable with the diversity of the human form - if we focused less on food intake and more on the state of our children's psyches - perhaps this dieting business could revert to being just a middle-aged fad.