Wednesday 13 November 2019

The Irish children as young as five with anorexia

As Emma Woolf chronicles her own eating disorder, she looks at how today's kids are increasingly affected

Emma Woolf

This morning, for the first time, I asked my mother what it's like to have a daughter with anorexia. "Appalling." She's silent for a moment.

"Absolutely appalling. I'll never forget that day when we first realised something was badly wrong. In the space of a few months you'd somehow crossed over from slim to skeletal . . . We were terrified, both me and Dad, and we haven't stopped worrying about you."

I wasn't a young child when anorexia took hold of me, I was at university, but I can hear the fear in my mother's voice -- because I was still her child.

As a recovering anorexic, the latest figures about the growing incidence of anorexia in girls as young as five makes depressing reading.

In a world where dieting and self-denial, yo-yo weight gain and loss are often part of the modern female experience; where we refer to "guilt" and "treats" in relation to eating habits, is it any wonder that little girls are picking up on this too? I'm not surprised by the findings of this report.

There are up to 1.6 million people with an eating disorder in the UK, and those are only the official statistics. New figures show that the number of under-nines needing hospital treatment has doubled in the past year.

In Ireland, a conservative estimate of 200,000 people have an eating disorder.

In the 1980s I read Just Seventeen and worried about eyeshadow, not the size of my thighs. It seems like a different world for girls today: a toxic mix of celebrity culture and a multibillion pound diet and cosmetic surgery industry.

As women, we are told that fat is bad, slim is beautiful. Do we expect our little girls not to notice? I'm in no position to offer advice, as an anorexic writing about my struggle to gain weight and have a baby.

Nevertheless I'm conscious, as I think back to my own childhood, of how lucky I've been, relatively speaking.

Even though anorexia has affected every area of my life for more than a decade, I'm fortunate that it was late-onset, at 19. Which means that there is more chance of me recovering to lead a "normal" life. It did not rob me of my childhood or adolescence.

I remember having fun, being carefree about food and relationships, getting drunk and eating kebabs, having curves and feeling sexy.

Anorexia robs you of all that.

A friend, Sukey, developed anorexia and bulimia at the age of eight. She is now 27 and in many ways she's still a child.

She has never menstruated or worn a bra, never had a boyfriend. For her, any weight gain is associated with having a woman's body; she is stuck at the physical stage of an eight-year-old, with brittle bones and the wizened face of an old lady.

I don't have children yet, but the thought of my two nieces (aged four and seven) developing eating disorders grips me with fear. I ring my sister to ask her what it's like, bringing up two girls in today's body-dysmorphic world.

Katie explains what a balancing act it can be: "I'm aware of the food and eating thing, especially with the girls. Just last week, Sal came home from ballet saying she wanted to learn to do the splits."

Sal, my niece, is seven.

"But apparently her best friend Milly told her they both needed to lose a stone first. A stone? Why would you need to lose a stone, I asked Sal.

"Because Milly's mummy is losing a stone on the milkshake diet."

My sister was shocked.

"It's impossible, really, trying to explain the difference between being supple and fit enough to do the splits, and losing masses of weight. Of course I want to set a good example, keeping fit and eating healthy food, but I'm so conscious of not overdoing it."

She goes on to give me an example of another schoolgate-friend.

"She's on a diet herself, which is fair enough. She was overweight as a child and she's desperate for her children not to get fat -- but she's passing on the anxiety to them. Whenever her kids come round to play, they hang around the kitchen -- they seem to be obsessed with food.

"Instead of accepting that they're growing children, their mum's got them caught up in this cycle of restriction and guilt; they don't even know when they're hungry or full."

Sound familiar? Of course this is emotional eating, calorie restriction and food-guilt, a feeling that I know only too well.

We do our children no favours by allowing them to over-eat but nor should we be passing our hang-ups on to them. Children need carbohydrates for energy; full-fat milk for their bones.

It's not just girls. My sister tells me about the boys too. One of her daughter's friends is a vegan.

"Yes, vegan, at nine years old! We go round there and he's on this weird diet, he basically eats soy paste and Ryvita, a few vegetables and nuts, everything organic, gluten-free, no sugar, meat or dairy.

"His mum calls it the 'perfect diet' but it's horrendous. He can't eat at friends' houses, he's anxious and nervy around food, emotionally unstable and really weak and pale. He takes about six supplements with every meal."

Imposing such diets on young children has been dubbed "muesli starvation".

As for the media, it's hard to escape the pressure entirely.

My sister cites Strictly Come Dancing, where "professional dancers and celebrities are poured into tight Lycra. After my girls watched it, they asked me why they had round tummies. Round tummies? Kids are supposed to have round tummies!"

So what's the solution?

In the long-term, a child who fears food and distrusts their natural appetite is as unhappy and unhealthy as an obese child.

Teaching children how to eat is as important as teaching them how to read or write. It's too simple to claim that all this is the fault of media, celebrities or the weight-loss industry.

What caused anorexia, for me? Honestly? A broken heart, then a diet which got out of control, shaky body image and perfectionism, faulty brain chemistry, pressure from society and the media and myself -- all those reasons and others too.

While it's our choice, as women, to diet, detox or pound the treadmill, let's at least allow our little girls and boys to enjoy their food and love their bodies.

Let's just allow them to be children, let's give them a healthy start in life. When I'm all mended, I want the child I have with the man I love to be free of anorexia, too.

I think back to making cakes with my mother, eating fish and chips at the seaside with my brothers and sisters and I know that food is a wonderful part of childhood.

Some names have been changed

Emma's book, An Apple a Day, is out in spring 2012

Irish Independent

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