IN RECENT YEARS, Ireland, like much of the rest of the world, has become obsessed with weight loss and it’s no coincidence that the diet, fitness, cosmetic surgery and pharmaceutical industries have reaped the rewards. As a psychologist with a special interest in body image, I am especially concerned about the impact that this has on children and young people.
About three years ago, some colleagues and I were in a primary school conducting research on children’s health. My friend Dee was helping a little boy to fill in a questionnaire. This boy was seven years old and around the same size as the other kids in his class. One of the questions he had to answer was something along the lines of ‘Would you like to be a bit bigger, a bit smaller, or stay the same size?’ This little boy was sure that he wanted to be smaller. Dee was surprised and when she asked him about it he said ‘I’m watching what I eat you know. I’ve a wedding coming up’.
Obviously this was something he had heard that had stayed with him and that he was now applying to himself. It was partly this incident (as well as our recognition that there aren’t really a whole lot of resources out there for parents and teachers who want to promote positive body image) that prompted Dee and I to sit down together and write a children’s story about a little boy who learns to appreciate that people come in all shapes and sizes.
How parents can pass on worries about weight to their children
The worrying thing is that the little boy Dee spoke to is not alone. Research suggests that young children are knowledgeable about different ways to lose weight and most say they have learnt about these methods from a member of their family. Dieting has become a normal part of life in Ireland and children up and down the country are witnessing their parents spending huge amounts of time, energy and money on yo-yo diets and weight loss gimmicks.
There are dieting clubs in every parish hall and community centre in every corner of Ireland and despite parents’ good intentions, children can become aware of them anxiously standing on scales and totting up points and calories. It’s hardly surprising that children can come to feel that there is something wrong with their own bodies. Research shows that children report dissatisfaction with their bodies from age 8, with children as young as 9 engaging in restrictive dieting behaviours.
One of the saddest aspects of Ireland’s current obsession with dieting, is that it generally doesn’t work. This fact is reflected in the findings of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image which were reported this week. Some of the most interesting findings from the inquiry relate to the effectiveness of dieting. Representatives of the diet industry acknowledged that there is an unrealistic expectation about weight loss while critics, including psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, argued that not only does dieting fail to address the emotional issues associated with problematic eating, but that there is no evidence that diets work in the long run – more than 95 per cent of dieters regain the weight lost.
There is an alternative to dieting…
During the inquiry, Orbach and campaigners from the Endangered Bodies campaign held a ‘Ditching Dieting’ protest outside the House of Commons, where people were invited to come forward and dump their diet plans and other weight loss into a giant yellow bin marked Hazardous Materials. While giving up dieting can seem like a scary thing, Endangered Bodies offers the sensible alternative of eating when you’re hungry, eating the food you’re hungry for, finding out why you want to eat when you’re not hungry, tasting every mouthful and stopping when you’re full. It’s not easy and it takes a bit of getting used to, but your body will thank you for it.
It is through Susie Orbach and her colleagues in London, that I became involved in Endangered Bodies, an international movement that challenges the merchants of body hatred so that the next generation does not grow up hating their own bodies. I started out as an intern with the London committee and in recent months I’ve met with a group of like-minded women in Ireland and we’ve started our own Endangered Bodies Ireland branch. We are just getting started at the moment, but we have a number of actions planned for the next couple of months, starting with the launch of a women’s discussion group called ‘You At Peace’.
While body image concerns and the pressure to diet affect both men and women, they have a particular impact on the lives of women because of the way that society values women’s appearance. By giving ourselves permission to use our voices we can arm ourselves for activism in our own lives and find the strength to challenge the growth of the diet, weight loss and cosmetic surgery industries as well as the limited representation of human bodies in mainstream media, the increasing prevalence of disordered eating and the fear and stigmatisation of fat.
Deirdre Cowman is co-ordinator of the Endangered Bodies Ireland campaign and author of ‘The Magnificent Toby Plum’. See
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Endangered-Bodies-Ireland/240757395980038 and http://www.magnificentlyu.com/