A new study from Common Sense Media made headlines by reporting that 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. Furthermore, this new research found that more than half of girls and one-third of boys ages six to eight want thinner bodies.
In 1970, the average age a girl began dieting was 14, according to The Eating Disorder Foundation. By 1990, that age had dropped to eight. Twenty-seven years later, the numbers haven’t significantly changed. Each new study on children, dieting, and body image reveals only more appalling details. In 1991, 42% of first-through-third-grade girls reported wanting to be thinner. That same year, a study found that 51% of of nine- and 10-year-old girls felt better about themselves while dieting.
Many studies report a connection between parents’ attitude toward dieting and children’s behavior, and it will come to absolutely no one’s surprise that most kids (even as young as five) hold the same beliefs about food restriction as their mothers. Perhaps more surprising is that the media seems to hold an even greater influence than a child’s family. In nearly all studies regarding children and body image, test subjects list television, film, and video-game characters as the physical standards to which they aspire. It’s easy to see why. Another study, in 2000, surveyed top children’s movies, reporting that “72% associated thinness with positive character traits such as kindness, and three out of four videos equated obesity with undesirable qualities.”
It’s not only this steady stream of subconscious messages that’s steering kids toward restriction and insecurity. The diet industry itself takes advantage of its influence on the younger population. Today, Weight Watchers allows children as young as 10 to join its program. Jenny Craig’s age cutoff is 13, and Nutrisystem’s is 14. Of course, those are only official rules. After all, Weight Watcher didn’t put me on it’s regimen at nine. My mother did.
To me, this is very scary stuff. Is it too late to change it?