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Children Feel Weight of Body Image

Anxieties about looks push kids into diets as early as age 10

Joseph Hall
August 27, 2009

Jack Duncanson starts each day by checking his "six pack and pipes" in his full-length bedroom mirror.

He wants to install a basement gym to help further his modelling and hockey careers, and to build on those burgeoning abdominal and arm muscles.

He is also 11 years old.

"It's totally a body image thing," his mother Kelly Duncanson says of the Pickering youngster. "I don't know where it comes from."

But a new Canadian-based study may give her some answers.

That teens and young adults feel social and peer pressures to have movie-star bodies is well documented. But the study of some 4,200 Nova Scotia kids shows children as young as 10 and 11 are getting in on the weight-watching act, with many saying their happiness can hinge on being supermodel slender or built like Tom Cruise.

"That's what's so new about this study; we know this relationship between body weight and body satisfaction ... from adults or older adolescents," says Paul Veugelers, a University of Alberta public health researcher and senior study author.

"But here we're looking at 10- and 11—year-old kids, pre-pubescent kids by and large, and we see almost identical relationships."

Published today in the online journal BMC Public Health, the study was also conducted by researchers at Harvard University.

Based on surveys of Grade 5 children across Nova Scotia, it showed a disturbing number were concerned about their weight.

"For girls, the skinnier they are the happier they are with their bodies, and with boys it's more ... they don't want to be too skinny but they don't want to be overweight either," Veugelers says.

Veugelers says aspiring to a perfect physique is usually futile for children and can lead to unhealthy, lingering anxieties about looks.

"The literature has also shown it is a risk factor for disordered behaviour related to eating," he said.

The research comes as no surprise to Hospital for Sick Children research scientist Gail McVey.

"What I know from my research is that children as young as 10 are not only experiencing body image concerns, but they're engaging in unhealthy dieting practices to try to change their weight or shape," says McVey, who is also director of the Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders.

In a survey she conducted of 2,000 children aged 10 to 14, 30 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys were dieting to lose weight despite being in a healthy weight range. Although society has an obesity problem, she says "they're engaging here in unhealthy dieting practices."

For Jack, a well-grounded boy, both his body and brains are important for gaining popularity.

"You have to have both to go with the flow," he says.

Veugelers says the blame for body image concerns at a younger age is widespread.

"There's a role of the media, there's a role of the fashion industry, there's a role for the cosmetics industry making it important how we look, how we smell," he says.

"And it starts already with toys like Barbie Dolls."





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