The right to exercise their freedom

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
I'VE always maintained that there are fewer than two dozen people that most of us could see in any circumstances and name within the time it takes to say "Blow me, it's Michael Barrymore!" It's a simple game for long car journeys; there are a few that most people agree on - Barrymore, Cilla Black, Patrick Moore perhaps. Constant TV exposure, longevity, unusual features all count. But the test is whether the famous stand out when out of context. For example, would you really recognise the Queen wearing jeans and trainers in your local Tesco?

The problem with proving this hypothesis, of course, is that if it is true, you would never know. If one recognised Her Maj, one would be wrong. If one didn't, one would be right, but would never have the satisfaction of knowing. Still, I came close three weeks ago, on a flight to Berlin from London. Having found my seat and swung my bag up to the overhead rack, I turned to let a young woman into the row. Her face was familiar, and she nodded as though we had met before. It took me half-an-hour to recognise someone whose only claim to fame is the way she looks - the model, Kate Moss. So much for my keen eye.

Moss turned out to be refreshingly free of airs and graces, but bafflingly bewildered by the debate about the self-image of young girls raging around her head. She claims never to have been "ill", though a stay in the top people's clinic, The Priory, did expose her to several young women suffering from eating disorders. But it takes an heroic degree of isolation to miss the growing concern about teenagers' body image.

The past week has seen a Downing Street summit on the body image of young women. The incidence of eating disorders is now being described as epidemic. On the other side, a new survey condemns British teenagers as "couch potatoes". The loss of playing fields and teachers' reluctance to give u yet more time outside the national curriculum to supervise sports have all made it harder for schoolchildren to do what used to come naturally.

But I think it would be too easy to conclude that young people are simply being led astray or let down by grown-ups, whether fashion magazines or teachers. The fact is that many do get off their butts, and most children are not puffing, panting, wheezing fatties. It may be that not too many can pass the fitness test for the Marines these days, but maybe the Marines need to think again about the exact level of fitness required of a signals operative, for example.

What we certainly don't want is the kind of food fascism which surfaces every time there is a flurry of weight-watching among teenagers. Children should have the right to make choices about their own lives, even if this entails risk to their health. The evidence is that year by year, adult fears are removing the right - - and therefore the capacity - for young people to make decisions for themselves. We should then hardly be surprised when people who look like adults behave like adolescents. It may be the first chance they have had in their lives to make a mistake.

An AA survey, designed to show that the school run was not the cause of congestion on the roads, demonstrated instead the level of paranoia among parents about letting children out on the streets on their own. Apparently we all now drive and walk our children to school, and we take holidays at the same time as the schools.When I was a child, my parents would allow me to roam far and wide during the summer break, but I would no more think of allowing my children to do so than push them in front of a 10-tonne lorry.

But if we deprive children of autonomy, we could be storing up a lot of trouble. An irresponsible12-year-old may be manageable; 10 years later he's a menace.

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