Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

Eating disorders are up, driven by the toxic message: beauty is slim

December 2, 2013 @ 11:48 am

Cara Delevingne

Cara Delevingne: beautifully slim.

The number of pre-teens being treated with eating disorders has trebled in four years. It's a shocking statistic — until I think of what I see every day. In the school playground, the chants are about "fatty"  and "lard ass". The "popular" group is "thin" — and this is among 10-year-olds.

My daughter (10) and her girlfriends discuss "Cara Del" (the supermodel Cara Delevingne)  and "Cheryl C" (as in Cole), and think model looks are the gold standard. We look through the pages of "Vogue" together, and I explain about airbrushing, but she is dazzled by the images nonetheless. It may be fake, but it's beautiful.

Some of her friends already talk about "diets". One asked, of her new jeans, "does my bum look big in this?" I'm not sure she was joking.

The daughter knows I disapprove, so when she wants to tease me, she announces that she's anorexic. I was terrified until I was reassured by friends who explained this is typical of little girls taunting the grownups. It's when they don't mention eating disorders, but instead tell you that they are wasting away because of a "growth spurt" that you need to worry. Those with eating disorders, like addicts, lie non-stop. They conceal their habits (like making themselves sick after every meal) with any number of subterfuges.

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Sadly, many members of their family lie to themselves, too. I have heard of parents whose daughter plainly suffers from an eating disorder: she looks gaunt, her breath stinks, she disappears to the loo after supper. But her mum and dad won't acknowledge a thing.

Anorexia, and bulimia, have been around for years. But not in these numbers. What has changed, to push these young people into self-abuse?

Charities point to the rise in cyber-bullying and the sexualisation of children as possible causes.  They have a point: although peer pressure has always been around, and children have been pushed into the skin trade by sick grown ups for centuries, this generation's different television habits and the advent of the internet have changed the ground rules. Given the number of hours the average child watches telly  and spends online  – five hours and 20 minutes — no one can escape the toxic message: beauty is everything and beauty is slim.

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