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Is Our Celebrity Culture to Blame for Increasing Body Image Concerns and Eating Disorders in Our Children?

Article by Auriel Blanche


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A vogue magazine with the picture of celebrity Rihanna on the front cover, placed on a table with other magazines

Picture credit: Charisse Kenion of Unsplash

Is it a desperate search for identity? Or part of a normal need to feel of value?

Many parents, health professionals and society at large are increasingly concerned that body image worries, eating disorders and low self-esteem are increasingly occurring in young children. Eating disorders include a range of physical, psychological and behavioural features that often have an impact on social functioning and can invade most areas of a child’s life.  Instead of living happy, playful and healthy lives children are concerning themselves with anxiety and distress about their shape and size. It is estimated that an astounding 40% of nine year olds have already dieted and we are beginning to see four and five year olds expressing the need to diet. It is such an awful shame because these children are losing their childhood and a crucial stage of their life when they are growing and developing into individuals.

Children have always wanted to dress up and copy famous people –look how even young kids still love to dress up in their mum's clothes - boys modelled themselves on tough men/cowboys like John Wayne – girls copied or wanted to look like models and actresses –such as Marilyn Monroe, and later Madonna, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, etc - their hairstyles mannerisms, clothes. I think it is a normal part of growing up – fun, dreaming - learning from role models.  But now size zero models etc seem to be shown as the ideal stereotype on fashion magazines, etc and children seem to have taken too directly a totally unrealistic view of what normal girls should achieve.

These days many role models even for young kids seem to be celebrities who   appear to depend largely on their looks and body shape our as part of staying successful and on top of their game - popular shows like x factor, strictly come dancing etc would seem to reinforce this. Many Celebrities now seem to be famous just for being ‘celebrities’ rather than achieving anything more tangible - such as success in a particular area – eg great films made, sports, etc., Is there perhaps a lack of balance and certainty in life. These days – is there a lack of structure within which to operate where you know what you are meant to do and be – more families split up and so perhaps no satisfactory role model is available within the family group – people moving away from what they know and can identify with – not many jobs and so nothing realistic to look forward to ……………… and this feeling moves down to the kids.  

It is necessary to develop a wider sense of who you are – a solid sense of who you are with your own holistic identity – to include more interests – It needs schools, society and parents working together – explain to kids about challenges that celebs have – what you see is not always the reality – what is important in life – accepting and valuing who you are – whoever you are!  But do the values of our society support this aim?  Do we appear to give importance to more materialistic superficial values rather than focusing on reality – the inherent value of our family, friends and loved ones? In 2009 award-winning UK TV presenter and fashion stylist Gok Wan launched a campaign to get body confidence classes into the National Curriculum. With a huge achievement of 50,000 signatures his proposal has not yet still been implemented. But Gok hasn’t given up and is re-launching his campaign, planning to lobby MPs outside of Parliament to get body confidence taught on the national curriculum as part of the PSHE in all the schools. He explained:  "I think the problem lies in so many different areas. It's so hard to pinpoint because if we could just find one area, we could probably do something about it. But I think it's a combination of the media - we need to be more positive about it, I think it's about education of families as well, education of schools as well. I think it's in every single direction. Body dysmorphia has been carried down over the years and now it's been passed to the next generation and we need to do something about it." Although eating and weight disorders are common in children there is a scarcity of practical guidance on treatment methods for eating disorders for young people. There are some books available for parents and adults with regards to recognizing and helping a child who has an eating disorder, but not much guidance available for children themselves.

There is certainly a lack of material available for children to prevent the body image concerns inflicted upon them by the media, magazines, celebrity gossip and constant diet tips in the papers and in society. The key here, as so often, is self-esteem/self-confidence and  feeling really good about yourself - having a solid feeling of identity; of who you really are – not just the outside and the odd thing you may be good at but the whole person: The Real You.  It is no good being told this unless you know how to achieve it – guidance and teaching this should be a basic part of kids’ education at home and also at school.  Some parents don’t feel good themselves and can also benefit from realizing what a valuable person they really are, and that it is ok to acknowledge this. Also involved is knowledge of healthy eating and how to stay fit and a healthy weight without spending a fortune and taking too much time – time which many people feel unable to spare.  Additionally, many mothers may struggle to provide healthy food – convenience foods save time but are not always the healthiest and often contain high levels of fat and salt.  Jamie Oliver and others try to educate and help here with healthy eating campaigns.

It is clearly beneficial to offer books for parents to be able to recognize the symptoms of eating disorders as many children don’t recognize, acknowledge or accept that they have themselves have a problem.  Recognition of eating disorders as a real and treatable disease is critically important.  The consequences of eating disorders can be severe.  For example, one in ten cases of anorexia nervosa leads to death from starvation, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, other medical complications, sometimes even suicide. Without treatment, up to 20% of people with serious eating disorders may die prematurely. However, early identification and treatment leads to more favourable outcomes.  With treatment, the mortality rate falls to two to three percent. For this reason, we need to make sure that we let children know that there is help available and make them recognize their problems.

More important than this though, is the need for effective preventive tools. Teaching with practical systems   which teach children to value themselves as they are.  Awareness in parents to support children in growing up to love and accept their bodies, they must be raised to love and accept themselves. We need to teach children it is what's on the inside of them that counts, not what's on the outside. These pre-conceived images of beauty, the desire to be as thin as certain celebrity icons and the need to be on the next hyped diet phase, all need to be contradicted and reinforced with practical corrective messages.  To be an effective preventive tool for children it would need to be in the language or process that children can understand. And is empowering and can be fun.   It must also be creative and appealing in order to be engaging and influential. One of the best mediums for this message would be a story book, so the child can sit and read it independently and at a convenient time for them.  Literature and books often serve as a catalyst for conversations between children with friends and children with adults. This is a perfect conversational means for approaching subjects like healthy eating and body image, and more acceptable than parents giving them the same message direct.  There is certainly a niche in the market for books for children that tackle the issues of eating disorders and body issues in children. An enjoyable fun fantasy book, with characters a child could relate to, with vivid images and creative illustrations would be perfect.  The media sadly seem to send out confusing and misleading messages sometimes.

There just isn’t enough material for children to read to prevent these misleading messages.  Children are constantly exposed to the message that we should all be thin and not with the message that they need to accept people for who they are and not what they look like We need a variety of practical measures to support children in their everyday lives,  in learning to be content with who they are but also looking to make the most of their individual skills and  be healthy and active    We need children to be proud of who they are and respect others for who they  are- inside and not judge them solely on how they look  We need to help children to love and accept themselves  no matter what who they are . If parents, teachers, society and above all our government all work together to support our children learning in a truly positive holistic way – can we fail to create a generation of empowered children who accept their inherent value in themselves, feel a true sense of their own identity and so provide an empowered generation totally involved in making the most of what our country and the world has to offer?