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Volume 1, Number 7           Autumn 2001

Body Image: Fretting About Fat!
By Martha Irvine - AP National Writer
Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press. Copyright 2001

CHICAGO (AP) - One comes home and announces her intention to diet because "I'm getting fat!"

Another wishes she wore a smaller clothing size. And yet another declares herself "ugly" after studying fans wearing hip-huggers and midriff tops at a concert.

Such moments are hardly surprising in a world that many say is obsessed with weight and looks. But these comments come from children - girls ages 6, 8 and 5.

Experts say they are part of a growing number of young children, especially girls, who fret about body image. In extreme but increasingly common cases, some are being treated for eating disorders.

Dr. Ira Sacker recalls the 6-year-old girl who came to his New York practice because she was eating paper to curb her hunger. That was three years ago, when doctors say such patients were an anomaly.

"But these aren't isolated cases anymore," says Sacker, director of the eating disorder clinic at Brookdale University Hospital in Brooklyn and co-author of the book Dying To Be Thin. "It seems to be a trend."

That doesn't mean every child who worries about body image ends up anorexic or bulimic. But even some who, by societal standards, would be considered thin say they worry about how their peers view them.

"Sometimes, what I look like makes me feel bad," Danielle Darling, a tall, blue-eyed blonde from Bakersfield, Calif., says on her way to a community theater audition. She's the 8-year-old who wishes she wore a size smaller than a 12.

Then there's 10-year-old Kirstie Bilbrey. She stops to consider the question of body image after shopping with her mom at a store filled with glittery makeup and sweet-smelling bath gel at a mall in Schaumburg, a northwest suburb of Chicago.

A smiley, athletic girl who's attending cheerleading day camp this summer, Kirstie bashfully admits that, just moments earlier, she had complained that her shorts "make my butt look big."

Her mother, Ann Bilbrey, says Kirstie is much more concerned about looks than her two teen-age sisters ever were. And she says girls in the Scout troop she leads - second-graders among them -regularly discuss dieting.

"I've never seen girls more confident in my life," Ann Bilbrey says. "And yet, on the other hand, they're very aware of what they're wearing and how people view them."

Experts have documented the trend, here and abroad. Studies published earlier this year found that children as young as age 5 in Australia and Hong Kong wanted to be thinner, echoing similar U.S. findings.

An online poll conducted by Harris Interactive in January found that 17 percent of girls ages 8 and 9, and about a third of girls ages 10 to 12, perceived themselves as overweight. That compares with 16 percent and a fifth of boys, respectively, in the same age groups.

Some researchers and parents blame the influence of thin images in everything from magazines and TV to textbook drawings of girls that, one study found, have become skinnier over the years.

"I'm sure she looks at images of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Destiny's Child with their thin, flat bellies," Tammy Christensen, a mother from Highland, Utah, says of her 9-year-old daughter, who regularly complains about being fat, even though she's 4-foot-5 and weighs only 60 pounds.

Some parents say pop stars' clothing styles only reinforce the thin, sexy "ideal" girls strive for. Just about every mall carries short skirts, tight-fitting tiger-skin prints and belly- or back-bearing shirts in small sizes.

One department store at the mall where Kirstie and her mom were shopping sells T-shirts, in girls' sizes 3 to 9, with such slogans as "This Is What A Hottie Looks Like" and "Caution: Your Boyfriend's At Risk."

Not that every kid could fit into those clothes.

Federal statistics show a growing proportion of the nation's children are overweight - 14 percent of children ages 6 to 11, and 11 percent of those 12 to 17 - making the ideal even more elusive.

"Just because they want it, doesn't mean they can achieve it," says Dr. Marla Kushner, director of adolescent medicine at Chicago's Weiss Hospital.

She, too, is seeing increasingly younger patients, particularly girls, concerned about gaining weight that their developing bodies often need. But she says there are problems, including children who simply don't get enough exercise.

Nutritionists also say parents need to stress healthy eating habits instead of dieting - and then walk the talk themselves.

Avoiding weight criticisms also is key. "I catch myself saying things like, 'Oh, honey, hold your stomach in,'" says Danielle's mom, Nona Darling. "I know I probably shouldn't."

Instead, she says she trys to concentrate on letting her daughter be who she is, wear what she likes (within reason) - and not worry too much about what other people think.

It seems to be sinking in.

"It's not really what you're wearing or what you look like," Danielle says when asked how she chooses her own friends. "It's the person -it's what's inside."

How can we encourage girls in believing that "It's the person - it's what's inside" that counts? New Moon Publishing has an idea!

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