Pressure on young people to have the ‘perfect’ body reaching unhealthy levels

Hewett school students talking about attitudes to body image. Photo: Bill Smith

Hewett school students talking about attitudes to body image. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

Children as young as four are watching what they eat in case they get 'fat' and girls of 10 are 'padding bras with tissues' at school discos, according to a shocking new evidence today by teaching staff.

Their disturbing anecdotes have sparked calls from an East Anglian-based charity to recognise the impact the promotion of ideal, and often unrealistic, body images has – leading to low self-esteem, lack of confidence and anxiety on top of normal childhood worries and fears.

Norfolk students backed the findings, agreeing there is massive pressure on young people to look and be a certain way – not just from the media, but from peers too.

One 15-year-old said: 'We need to see people who are happy whatever they look like.'

Almost 700 primary and secondary school members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), who begin their annual conference on Monday, took part in the survey.

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The majority of teachers believe there is more pressure on young people than there was 10 years ago, with the advent of social media, an increase in celebrity magazines and television shows which promote 'perfect' bodies and feature stars such as singer Rihanna (pictured) as body idols.

Mary Bousted, their general secretary, said: 'Young people are under tremendous pressure to have or maintain often unrealistic body images portrayed in the media.'

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ATL members report that this not only impacts on female pupils but increasingly leads to low self-esteem, lack of confidence and anxiety in male pupils too.

'With academic and other social pressures young people have enough to deal with.

'Comparing and competing not only with their peers on looks but with air brushed celebrities in the media only leads to misery. Of course, young people want to fit in and it's a hard part of growing up but the pressure to have the 'perfect' body should not be at the detriment to children's well-being and happiness.'

Leanne Thorndyke, head of communications at Norwich-based Beat which provides help to adults and young people in the UK to beat their eating disorders, said: 'One of the interesting things about this report is that it has come from education staff who have picked this issue to flag up. Research we have done before shows that teachers are in a really good position to spot the signs of young people worrying about themselves.

'Children are picking up on things earlier than ever and they are subject to the same sort of pressures that we as adults are.

'I think people forget that a lot of children pick up everything around them and they are no immune to it. We had a stall at The Forum in Norwich recently during Eating Disorders Awareness Week and a mum came over to me and said her daughter is six and she held her tummy the other day and rubbed it and said: 'Mummy, I think I am fat.' The mother was clearly worried. We have also heard of boys as young as eight admitted to inpatient units with eating disorders.'

Ms Thorndyke believes no single thing is to blame for a young person's eating disorder but a mixture of complex issues - just as there is no one quick fix to help improve and enforce positive body images, especially in this digital age.

Education, promoting positive role models, parental support and changes to the way body image is portrayed in the media all have a part to play in providing a more realistic, healthy ideal for young people.

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