Even kids are obsessed with thinness

March 04, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

Jessica is 9 years old, but she already longs to look like supermodel Cindy Crawford or the female characters on TV's "Beverly Hills 90210."

"I tell [my friends] that I'm trying to go on a diet and I'm exercising a lot so I can lose nine pounds and be really skinny," the 4th grader said. "They say, 'Why are you going on a diet? You look fine.' "

Jessica said she works out with a Jane Fonda video every day and sometimes eats tiny portions, though she is of normal weight for her age and height.

The nation's infatuation with thinness is not new; it's been around at least since the 1960s, when a rail-thin model named Twiggy graced her first magazine cover.

What is new, parents and experts say, is that the obsession now is trickling down to pre-teens. The children's magazine 3-2-1 Contact, published by the Children's Television Workshop, last month devoted a cover story headlined "Kids and Diets? No Weigh!" to the problem.

The story noted that, based on her proportions, if Barbie were a real person, she'd be 6 feet 9 inches tall, have a 41-inch bust and a 20-inch waist. "She'd look very unreal!" the article told "real girls."

In earlier generations, elementary school children certainly fantasized about being glamorous or looking like a favorite movie star, but few took grown-up steps -- such as dieting, begging for designer clothes and sneaking on makeup -- to achieve that look.

And while children have always been guilty of taunting the "fat kid" or the "beanpole" in class, they didn't seem as aware of the nuances of physical attractiveness as youngsters are today.

"I was in the swimming pool, and my sister had friends over; all of them were skinny, and I'm not," said Jenny Sutherland, a sixth grader at Hale School in Schaumburg, Ill., her eyes filling with tears. "I didn't want them to talk about me, so I stayed in the water." She had attended a seminar on eating disorders for sixth graders last week at the school.

Added her classmate Ryan Pickett, 11: "A lot of kids here worry about what other people think. They don't do the things they want to do; they do things to fit in."

Children are being driven by a barrage of images: parents on diets; weight-loss commercials; health-club ads; TV shows with picture-perfect kids; music videos and magazines with shapely, slender models.

Adding to the confusion is the legitimate concern by pediatricians that as many as 25 percent of the nation's children are overweight from spending hours at a time in front of the TV.

The result, experts say, is that many pre-teens like Jessica have a distorted view of their bodies: They think they're fat when they're really not, or they dwell on their bodies more intensely than is natural or appropriate.

Moreover, many parents think their children are going through a phase, but they worry that it could grow into a serious eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

"Parents might not know if they're heading off to the bathroom and trying to throw up after dinner unless we visually see symptoms or evidence that this is taking place," said Jessica's mother, who lives in Chicago and asked that her daughter's real name not be used. "This kind of thing is around, and she's exposed to others who might influence her in this direction."

Pediatricians, child psychologists and teachers say they are starting to see more pre-teens with anorexia nervosa, a psychological disorder that compels a person to diet to the point of starvation, and bulimia, in which a person binges on food and then induces vomiting to purge it. Until recently, the conditions were confined mainly to teen-age girls and young adult women.

Experts are uncertain how many of the estimated 8 million eating-disorder patients are pre-teens, but many physicians say they are seeing victims as young as 8 years old.

"We've had other young victims around 9 and 8 who've experienced trauma and difficulties in their homes," said Dr. Garry Sigman, director of adolescent medicine at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.

"But we can't discount cultural factors," he said. "Eating disorders only exist in societies where thinness borders on godliness. With the demands for . . . having the perfect body, it's understandable that children are becoming more conscious of those issues than ever before."

Parents, teachers and health-care workers are trying to reverse the trend.

"Kids have to know you love them for who they are, not because of what they look like," said Joanne Little, a member of the PTA at Hale School in Schaumberg.

"We need to stress that everyone is an individual and everyone has value," she said during an hourlong eating-disorders seminar for pupils that included videos of young eating-disorder patients and discussions of the peer pressure to be thin.

Experts say an alarming number of children are insecure about their bodies.

A recent study by a South Carolina psychiatrist of more than 3,000 elementary-school children in that state showed that while only 20 percent of the pupils were actually overweight, 40 percent felt they were fat and needed to shed pounds. In addition, 15 percent indicated that they had either fasted or vomited to lose weight.

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