B ODY image is becoming more problematic at a younger age in Ireland, with more pre-teen boys and girls worrying about how they look than ever.
In April, this was highlighted by Dr Helga Dittmar of the University of Sussex who made a presentation at Trinity College Dublin, looking at the impact of 'perfect beauty' ideals in the media on body image.
Her studies show that girls as young as five to seven years old report body dissatisfaction after seeing ultra-thin Barbie dolls, and that ' body perfect' ideals in new, under-researched media (music videos, computer games) influence adolescents' body image.
Ruth Ní Eidhin, communications officer at Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, says Irish research a couple of years ago – ' What Hurts and What Helps Teenage Mental Health' – identified that self-image and body image was the top issue for the teenagers surveyed.
"Body image is a complex thing and making a connection with media images is too simplistic. However, we have to look at where children are getting the idea that there is something wrong with their bodies. It's obvious that a certain amount of advertising/ marketing is aimed at a very young age. Also, magazines mightn't necessarily be targeted at children, but they might be picking them up more.
"Images in general have become much more important in everyday life. For example, we don't yet know how the whole area of social-networking is affecting young people, ie that everyone profiled on Facebook has to have a picture and the way in which that picture represents them."
According to Dr Dittmar, the experience of negative thoughts and emotions about one's body is a risk factor for unhealthy body-related behaviours, such as eating disorders with girls and excessive exercising with boys.
"People on the ground, such as in children's hospitals, are reporting that seven to nine year olds are coming in with eating disorders," says Ní Eidhin.
"Danger signs to look out for in children is a preoccupation with how they look in the mirror and making comments about it. It's important to talk to them about where these ideas are coming from."
Anorexia is a very serious mentalhealth condition where a person makes a determined effort to reach or maintain a very low body weight. In medical terms, it equates to starvation of the body and in the long-term can have a serious impact on internal organs and bone health.
Bulimia is probably more common in Ireland than anorexia, but doesn't apply so much at a younger age because children mightn't have access to extra food to binge on or to laxatives, says Ní Eidhin.
A child who is affected by an eating disorder may go to great lengths to hide it, and may be in denial. As a parent, the most important thing to do in relation to body-image problems and eating disorders is to find out as much information as you can on the area, Ní Eidhin advises.
"Look for support groups [Bodywhys runs them in Dublin, Carlow, Galway]; speak to your doctor if you have medical concerns and seek out someone who has been through a similar experience. Understanding the eating disorder means understanding that it is about feelings rather than food."
One of the greatest challenges in identifying a child's eating disorder is attempting to distinguish between the 'picky' eating, common amongst young people, and disordered eating which may be becoming problematic. If you have concerns about your child's eating behaviours, one of the first things you can do is observe their eating habits. This should be done discreetly at first, advises Ni Eidhin.
Bodywhys has published a guide, 'Eating Disorders – A Resource for Parents', which can be downloaded from www.bodywhys.ie. You can also order a copy by text (text PARENTS along with name and postal address to 51500 – standard text rate). Bodywhys' helpline number is LoCall 1890 200 444.