A Chilling Conversation ...

Not so long ago, I experienced a conversation which really chilled me. The thing is, it wasn’t at work. It was at home. I was sitting with my daughter, helping her with her homework – a task which involved her finding 6 boxes or packets from in my kitchen cupboard, weighing them, then writing them down in order of weight – lightest to heaviest. It was an interesting homework (as she would say, much better than boring old sums), and we were pretty absorbed in it. Then suddenly I became aware her thoughts had wandered off topic. She was running her finger thoughtfully along the line drawn on her page, with ‘Lightest’ at one end and ‘heaviest’ at the other end. “Mummy,” she said eventually, “It’s good to be lightest isn’t it?” 
 
“What, for a packet of rice?” I asked, not wanting to jump to conclusions. I am aware that my previous role as director of Anorexia and Bulimia Care might make me prone to misinterpreting an otherwise innocent comment. 
 
“No Mummy, people,” said my daughter firmly. “For people. It is better for people to be lightest, isn’t it.”
 
Now, this might not be an unusual conversation, in houses across the country. But the thing is - my daughter is 5 years old. She isn’t 6 until August, and she is in year one at school. She still watches postman pat on TV, for goodness sake! She is not exactly a figure conscious teenager. And yet, it wasn’t long until we heard the question all parents dread: ‘Mummy, do you think I am fat?”
 
These conversations have really brought me down to earth with a bump. As a household, we don’t ever discuss weight. It just isn’t an issue. We don’t even own a set of scales, apart from the cheap set we bought to weigh luggage (which actually don’t work, and left us frantically stuffing items into our hand luggage in an attempt to get our slightly overweight suitcase past zealous staff at check in on our last holiday). But that isn’t enough to protect her from the obsessions at large about weight.  When we chatted about why she was asking these questions, it soon came out that she and a few friends had been comparing their weight in the school playground – a conversation started by one girl who has two much older sisters (who presumably are much more weight conscious). My daughter had no idea what she weighed. Neither do I! But she wanted to know, so she could see if she was lighter than her friends. She didn’t really understand why but somewhere in her 5 year old brain she had picked up the message that being thin was important. And believe me it is totally different dealing with these issues as a Mum to dealing with them as a professional! 
 
All of this has made me realise the myriad of pressures and influences open to my daughter – and all children - now she is in school. Her friends are as strong an influence as I am – stronger at times (apparently it is not possible to be ‘cool’ once you are over 25). She is already influenced by media images, even though she never watches any channels with adverts – nor does she read magazines. But she stood proudly, sucked her stomach in and told me me what you are ‘supposed’ to look like, according to her friends. She is only 5 but already she is living in a bewildering world. Already people are trying to tell her what is and isn’t important. Already she is starting to experience the pressures on her which will challenge everything about who she thinks she is and should be. 
 
I know that our experience is not unusual. I’m taking part in a parenting course run by our church at the moment, and the most lively discussion yet centred around how we can show our children acceptance, helping them to accept themselves and not feel under pressure to fit the medial ‘ideals’ they might see, or feel bad because they don’t look like the people they see in magazines and on TV. Research has found that children and teenagers are those most at risk of feeling bad about themselves after viewing media images of very thin or perfect women, and the least able to appreciate that these images show something which often is not anything close to reality. In fact stories are all around of images which have been overzealously airbrushed, desperate to produce this illusion of perfection. Even statements from bodies such as the Royal college of Psychiatrists calling for warning labels on digitally altered images which they feel are harming children doesn't seem to stop the flow of alarmingly adjusted pictures.  Here's just a couple of particularly silly examples. But the problem is that whilst they look ridiculous to us, children and teenagers find it very difficult to stop themselves from feeling bad that they do not look the same. Statistics and anecdotal stories from organisations like ABC (Anorexia and Bulimia Care) soon demonstrate just how many end up feeling that they are overweight or need to lose weight, even though they are actually 100% normal and healthy.
 
 
silly airbrushing
Silly Airbrushing - My thighs don't look like that ... 
 
more silly airbrushing
...And neither does my waist look like this! (pictures from the daily mail)
 
All of this places some pretty big demands on our children. I need my daughter to grow up knowing that she is absolutely fabulous just for who she is. But how on earth can I expect her to challenge such strong influences at just 5 years old? Human beings do not look ‘perfect’ – at least not in the way those magazines make them look. She shouldn’t ever feel under pressure to try to live up to an ideal which has nothing to do with the master who made her – but I know that she will. I know that is just part of growing up in the 21st century. It all makes me very sad. 
 
Thankfully for now, this little episode seems to have passed without any lasting impact. But it is a chilling reminder of what is no doubt to come as she grows up.  Like the many things she enquires about, she has hopefully filed away our careful responses to her about how God made humans in all shapes and sizes and how none of them are the shape or size you usually see in magazines! I pray for her that she will be able to figure all this out, keep and focus on the good information and filter out the unhelpful stuff, the bad stuff, the stuff which may make her flounder or doubt herself. And I pray the same for young people I work with in local schools, so many of whom struggle with issues around self confidence, body image, or related issues like eating disorders, anxiety problems or self harm. 
 
It's only a couple of weeks now to our conference, Mindset, at SoulSurvivor Watford, looking at all kinds of issues related to the emotional health of young people. It really is a battlefield out there, and the fight is over the minds and emotions of our children and teenagers. Join me in fighting, by praying for them, and the people who work with them to try to get them through the war safely.
Kate Middleton, 22/03/2011