A post from my wife’s archives when she was a columnist on Take a Break, Britain’s biggest-selling women’s weekly magazine.
This week’s theme: At eight years old, my little girl was worrying about getting fat. It was crazy. But who was really to blame?
It was chicken nuggets and chips for tea and I was expecting happy faces around the kitchen table.
‘Brilliant!’ said the five-year-old. ‘Nuggets and chips!’
‘Chip! Chip! Chip!’ squeaked the toddler.
So far, so good.
Then the eight-year-old sat down and surveyed her plate.
‘I don’t feel very well,’ she said. ‘My tummy hurts.’
Up until that moment, she’d been fine.
‘What is it, love?’ I asked. ‘What’s wrong?’
She looked at her plate, she looked at me and her face crumpled.
‘Chips,’ she said. ‘I hate chips.’
The five-year-old stared at his sister as though she’d turned into a dinosaur and started rollerskating through the kitchen.
‘Hate chips?’ he said. ‘Hate? Chips?’
‘Since when?’ I asked. ‘Chicken nuggets and chips is one of your favourites.’
‘Not any more,’ the eight-year-old replied. ‘Chips are really bad for you. They make you fat.’
I put down my mug of tea and thought very hard about what I should say next. Should I be pleased that my daughter was learning about eating healthily? Or should I be worried that this sudden aversion to chips was a sign of something sinister?
I considered it for a moment and then I said: ‘Chips are not very healthy, it’s true, but they’re all right so long as you don’t eat too many, too often.’
I reckoned that sounded like good advice.
But the eight-year-old still didn’t eat her chips.
I decided not to make a big deal of it. But later that evening I sat down to watch television and I began to change my mind. I was watching an episode of Jo Frost’s Extreme Parental Guidance. One of the issues being tackled by Britain’s favourite Supernanny was children’s body image.
Working with researchers from Cambridge University, she discovered that most 12-year-olds in Britain think they are too fat, while half of the country’s six-year-old girls want to be skinnier.
All of the girls who took part in the programme were a normal, healthy size.
I stared at the screen and shook my head in astonishment.
‘Worrying about your weight at the age of six!’ I thought. ‘What on earth is wrong with them?’
When I was six, I didn’t care what I looked like. I thought all women looked the same – like my mum who was, in my eyes, absolutely perfect. She was the only woman I wanted to be. I had no idea what a model looked like, never mind wanting to be one.
So what had changed to make today’s six-year-olds feel differently?
The mother of one of the girls in the programme reckoned she knew the answer. She said the attention given in the media to very thin models was responsible for making normal children believe they were overweight.
She had a point.
These days, it is virtually impossible to look at a fashion or celebrity magazine and see an average sized woman – unless, of course, she is being ridiculed. In fact, it is often hard to find a picture that resembles a real woman at all. Very many of the images we see have been heavily airbrushed and retouched. Of course, as adults we know that impossible beauty is exactly that. But a child doesn’t know.
For this very reason, The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ (RCPsych) Eating Disorders Section has called for warning symbols to be put on digitally altered photographs, and for underweight models to be banned.
The RCPsych says the promotion of unhealthy figures by images of underweight models can “glamorise” eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Dr Adrienne Key, consultant psychiatrist at the RCPsych, says: “Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. Although biological and genetic factors play an important role in the development of these disorders, psychological and social factors are also significant.
“There is a growing body of research that shows the media plays a part in the development of eating disorder symptoms – particularly in adolescents and young people.”
This is worrying. But as I sat watching TV I wondered if there wasn’t someone else to blame for our daughters’ self-loathing.
Earlier that day, I’d taken the eight-year-old over to my friend Sue’s house so she could play with Sue’s daughter. While the girls swapped stickers and pretended to be pop stars, Sue and I chatted.
Sue, who is an average and healthy size 14, was having a moan about herself.
‘I am so fat,’ she said. ‘I hate how I look.’
‘I feel the same,’ I replied. ‘Fat and frumpy. Not so much a bikini body as a beached whale body.’
We sighed. We sipped our tea. And all the time we were unaware that two other pairs of ears were listening. And two other brains were processing our words and emotions and going click…click…click.
Mum is fat. Mum is unhappy. Looking like Mum makes you unhappy.
But, actually, I am not unhappy. And neither is Sue. Of course, we’d love to look like Myleene Klass in a bikini but the fact that we don’t doesn’t keep us up at night.
Talking disparagingly about our bodies is just something women do without thinking. The words just roll off our tongues. We rubbish ourselves as easily as we breathe.
Why? Because it is not only little girls who have been conditioned to equate fashion and beauty with thinness.
The other day I was flicking through the newspaper when I came across some photographs of a fashion show in which size 12-14 models had been used.
Instead of thinking: ‘Wow, how wonderful to see an average sized woman on a catwalk’, my first reaction was: ‘Urgh!’
Only later did I come to my senses and think: ‘Goodness, those models are still slimmer than me. And I am not overweight.’
Trouble is, we are so unused to seeing breasts, tummies and thighs on a catwalk or in a magazine that, when we do, they appear all wrong to us. But they are not wrong. Beauty is not just one shape and size.
It’s time for mothers of daughters to wake up because if we can’t think straight about women’s bodies, what chance have our girls?
I made a decision.
The following evening I was getting ready to go out with a group of school run mums. Normally, I’d pull on a pair of black trousers and a baggy top. But now, as I rooted through my wardrobe, my hand reached for something else.
I pulled out a red velvet dress. Of all my clothes, it was my daughter’s favourite. She was always begging me to wear it. And I never would.
‘I’m too old now,’ I’d say.
Or: ‘It’s too short.’
Or: ‘I’m too fat.’
But the truth was, I’d done such a good job telling myself I looked rubbish that I’d lost the confidence to wear it. But now, I reckoned I needed to get that confidence back. Not for my sake but for my daughter – because the only role model a girl needs is a confident and happy mum.
I slipped it on and went downstairs.
I stepped into the living room where the eight-year-old was watching television. She looked up and her jaw dropped.
‘Oh Mum!’ she cried. ‘You’re wearing it!’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And what do you think?’
She got up and threw her arms around my waist.
‘You look lovely,’ she said.
She made me do a twirl and then she said: ‘Do you think, when I’m older, that I could have this dress for myself?’
‘What on earth for?’ I asked.
The eight-year-old look confused.
‘To look like you, of course,’ she said.
I pulled her close.
‘Consider it yours.’