Distorted Body Perspectives Affecting Kids as Young as 5 (Editorial)

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For most of us, it's not until our 20s that we start to feel comfortable in our own skins. However, I don't remember ever feeling uncomfortable in my body until middle school. It wasn't until I was thrown into the world of lockers, coed movie nights, and school dances that I ever thought twice about my hair or if my outfits were strategically color-coordinated. And, for me, most of those concerns came later than most because I was a tomboy who would have much rather enjoyed climbing trees and playing soccer than gossiping or trying to make friends with the older, more popular girls at lunch.

As more and more stories come out about girls dieting at younger and younger ages, I find myself startled. However, about a month ago when a story in the Wall Street Journal came across my desk about girls dieting in the fourth grade, I wasn't just shocked—I was disturbed. The fourth grade! When I was in the fourth grade (some 20 years ago), the only thing on my mind was Barbies and flash cards—certainly not dieting. Why are these children giving up their innocence so young?

For the past several weeks, the story has haunted me. Diets in adulthood aren't always healthy, especially not all these crash, fad diets we're attracted to, so they certainly can't be healthy for a 9-year-old, right? It turns out they're not healthy—not at all. Young children who diet can stunt their growth and their brain development.

How does the idea of dieting even come to mind in a young child? The article in the paper suggested our heightened awareness as a society of obesity. Certainly, the media can't be held 100% accountable. Certainly some of the responsibility can lie with parents fixated on dieting, and a $40-billion-a-year dieting industry? There's a part of me that just won't accept that the media is to blame for everything. In a sense, the media is a reflection of our society, giving back to the viewers, readers, and listeners what and how they are.

The National Eating Disorders Association says the cases of reported anorexia have risen since the 1980s, and reported cases of bulimia have tripled—and the youngest case reported involves a 5-year-old! Also interesting, data from the National Household Travel survey shows that, since 1969, the number of children walking or bike riding to school has dropped from 41% to 13%. Does anyone see a common thread here—less exercise and a more distorted perspectives of themselves?

According to Harris Interactive surveys, between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of girls who believed they must be thin to be popular rose from 48% to 60%. (This poll consisted of 1,059 girls.) One girl quoted in the article seems to justify their findings, "I want to be thin so no one will tease me." A fourth-grade boy validates her fears, "If someone can't help being fat, you shouldn't make fun of them. But girls in the fourth grade can help it."

Reading those comments, even retyping them, makes my heart sink. These children are so young, and already on a self-destructive mission. But, what can teachers do? Teaching proper nutrition is a fragile subject matter, and somehow eating disorders have gone from disturbing to glorified in youngsters' minds.

I set out to look for some "healthy" materials teachers could use in the classroom about eating disorders. I don't know if these will help students understand that dieting and eating disorders are serious, not praiseful, diseases, or not but I was fortunate enough to find a fairly resource-full site, Scholastic.com. I also found a great article on eating-disorder.com addressing eating disorders in elementary schools.

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