Dying to be like Barbie? The truth behind underage eating disorders

How much attention do you pay to the toys your children play with?

Eve Dugdale
Eve Dugdale - Special to Al Arabiya English
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How much attention do you pay to the toys your children play with?

You probably assess if they’re safe and age appropriate. But have you ever thought about the effect they have on your little one’s mental health?

A British teenager recently admitted how she developed an eating disorder at the age of eight as she wanted to be as skinny as the Barbie and Bratz dolls she played with.

Now 18, Lucy Mathison said she and her friends would bring the dolls into school where they’d admire them and say how pretty and thin they were.

Lucy began restricting her food intake and comparing herself to the dolls. A year later she was making herself sick.

Like adults, children respond to advertising and trends and this can trigger insecurities, explains Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the UAE’s Camali Clinic, Doctor David Lee. However, he says eating disorders in children as young as eight are thankfully rare.

“What we see quite often are eating disorders emerging in early teen years and it might take over when they’re in mid to late teens. It’s rare to see an eight year old with an eating disorder,” he explains. “When we see traits emerging at that age, it often depends on the family and we’ll come across a mum who’s a picky eater, a perfectionist or she talks a lot to her daughter about what she eats and it all plants a seed. Often, but not always, what I see in teenage girls I work with is parents who have ridiculously high standards and are pedantic that everything needs to look right – hair, clothes, school folders etc – they all need to be in perfect order.

“We talk about clinical perfection which is very common in girls who develop eating disorders and it’s generally common in a family - you get a lot of high achieving females who are high achievers across the board. They push themselves very hard and are often very sporty as well so it’s like there’s a common perfectionist theme that transfers to body image as well as other things.”

Rather than rushing to throw dolls in the garbage, instead consider how you think and behave in front of your children, suggests Dr Lee.

“It’s about becoming very mindful about the language that you use and your point of reference,” he adds.

“It’s easy to pass a negative comment on your appearance or say you don’t like something and you’re fat but that kind of models a child’s behaviour that they need to look a certain way. It’s also not healthy to always be telling younger children to watch what they eat and consider how many calories are in something etc. As parents we are really at risk of transferring our own thinking on to children.”
Ruth Davies is one mum who realises she needs to love her body in order to help her child develop a healthy attitude.

She says: “I've always been very critical of my body as a result of direct criticism from relatives at certain points as well as media and peer pressure. But now I have a baby I want to lead by example and make her feel comfortable and proud of her body but absolutely not defined or controlled by it. I think it's shocking how often females greet one another with comments about appearance with phrases such as: "Have you lost weight?” or “Those jeans make you look slim”. It's a social norm but it's also casting an immediate judgement on appearance.”

Dad-of-three Chris Doyle believes teaching his children that size doesn’t matter so long as you’re healthy is key.
“I've yo-yo'd with my weight over the years and had possible issues with anorexia according to my significant other. But I’m determined that my children remain healthy and know they're perfectly formed. I've heard members of the family call my girl 'tubby' and I see it hurt her. I tell her she's not but try and encourage her to exercise with me a little, eat a little more healthily and so on. I try to make it completely explicit that this isn't anything to do with her shape or weight - it's to do with living a long, happy life where you can do anything you like.

“If anyone else complains about their weight and my girl is there, I encourage her to advise them. Usually she says the same as I've said to her but follows it with giving them a hug and telling them she thinks they're great so I might be onto a winner there.
“It's hard, I can't stop anyone criticising themselves in front of her but I can deflect and educate.”

Developing healthy attitudes towards food and body shape is vital, says Dr Lee. As is doing what Chris does by being “caring, affectionate and loving in an unconditional way.”

Dr Lee adds: “Make them realise your love is unconditional. Phrases such as “You look fantastic today” or “Those jeans suit you more than the ones you wore last week” give children the message that they’re only acceptable, worthwhile or valid when someone praises them for how they look and what they’ve achieved. It’s very conditional and reinforces to children if you looked different or were a few pounds lighter that would be more desirable. It gets them to focus on body image at the expense of everything else as though that supersedes everything else.”

Don’t be too hard on yourself though, says Dr Lee – parents aren’t exclusively to blame for eating disorders. It’s just essential that they use their influence wisely.

He adds: “We’re always going to have trends and be faced with glossy magazines and posters with skinny women on them. Celebrities who have lost masses of weight will be publicly praised and it’s seen as a good thing. We can’t shield our children from that but we, as parents, need to make sure we don’t reinforce the view that being skinny is the ideal and anything less than that isn’t desirable.”

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