Eating Disorders in the Playground

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by Melinda Hutchings

Two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular, according to a 2003 study of 135 South Australian children conducted by Professor Marika Tiggemann, of the School of Psychology, Flinders University. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing. (i)

And according to Dr Murray Drummond of Flinders University, who I interviewed for my book "Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues", for boys these negative impressions are “associated with the drive for muscularity. Guys on the cover of male targeted health magazines are athletic and muscular, but devoid of hair – almost prepubescent, which has caused a problem in our changing cultural expectations.”

Material published on psychology website confirms that by school-age, children often face prejudices based on their appearances. Children spend much of their early lives in schools, an environment that is highly social and competitive with notoriously rigid hierarchies often based on physical appearances. Studies have found that teachers are also drawn to the most attractive children, which can further compound a child's poor body image. In a school-age child, a poor body image may result in social withdrawal and poor self-esteem.

And if primary school aged children develop a fixation on the way they look and a negative awareness about weight and size, these feelings can trigger self destructive thoughts and behaviours which can spiral into an eating disorder.

In "Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues" there is a chapter dedicated to triggers. For me personally, peer pressure and puberty led to feelings of inadequacy, and played a leading role in the onset of anorexia. Triggers can be situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness including family arguments related to eating (e.g. “you’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate”), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. “go away we don’t want to play with you”), or feeling like a misfit. Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity.

I recently delivered a keynote to a wonderful group of educators of primary school aged children at the Life Education annual conference. I feel strongly that we need to target the primary school age group and engage them constructively in order to educate about positive body image to aid in fostering a positive self-image. From an early age children are susceptible to the messages they receive and negative messages are in danger of being absorbed into their belief system. If we can be proactive at the primary school level, we have every chance of reducing the incidence of disordered eating at an early age, as well as when children grow into teenagers.

So, what can parents and caregivers do to help promote confidence and stability?

Preserving an open channel of communication and being available to listen without judgement will help children to feel safe and secure inside the family environment. Also, finding a balance between encouraging achievement without heaping on the pressure and ensuring children are surrounded by strong, positive role models to promote self esteem.

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