Who's Really Surprised That 7-Year-Olds Are Putting Themselves On Diets?

Young kids' burgeoning obsessions with their weight and dieting are tragic, yes. But surprising? Not in the least.

Mar 13, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

Last week, an Australian mom discovered a self-designed diet plan written on a bit of paper lying on the floor of her 7-year-old daughter’s room. The “diyet” -- the misspelling would be cute if the context wasn’t so tragic -- includes a list of foods the 7-year-old will hypothetically “allow” herself to eat, plus a number of daily exercises to do.

The little girl's mom, Amy Cheney, was aghast and distraught, to say the least, and wrote about her feelings for Mamamia:

Where did she learn the word diet? How does she even know what a freaking diet is?

[...] I am smart about this stuff. I have a degree in early childhood studies. Our family focuses on and promotes healthy eating and healthy bodies. Our attitudes are reasonable and balanced. Weight has never been an issue in our home – it is, for the most part, irrelevant.

I have never stood before my husband and queried ‘does my arse look big in this’. Ever.

And then she was angry. Understandably so, as for those of us who make efforts to ensure that the young people in our lives will not grow up hating their bodies, to lose ground in such a pitched battle is deeply upsetting.

However, as sad as this revelation might be, it’s not a surprising one. If only protecting our kids from the culture in which they must live was as easy as modeling positive behavior at home. Unfortunately, it's more complicated than that. 

In my personal diet narrative -- the one that encompasses my entire childhood and adolescence -- I've always said I started dieting around the age of 9, although I’m not entirely certain that this is accurate. I landed on 9 as the likely starting point because I have this diary. 

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There is so much more where this came from.

The diary is a paperback sent to me as a Christmas present from my cousin in Tennessee, whom I saw rarely, but who -- with help from my aunt, I’m sure -- pretty reliably sent some excellent holiday gifts each year. It's edged in a pink border dotted with white hearts, and emblazoned with the words “My Diary” and a picture of a cartoon teddy bear. It is subtitled, “A special place to doodle and dream,” offering a promise of unbounded childhood imagination and possibility.

In my first entry, I introduce myself: “I am 9 (almost ten) and overweight. 105 pounds!" This is the most important thing I can say about who I am? "But Marc,” -- the boy on whom I had fixed my childish affections -- “still likes me.” Bully for Marc, able to see past this terrible flaw.

Two months later, I bemoan my new weight of 108 pounds, the pressure of constant body vigilance already a central feature of my young world. It seems likely that my awareness of my weight predated this diary by some amount of time -- certainly I remember being as young as 4 and recognizing that I was bigger and rounder than my peers in ballet. 

The real question is when did the realization strike that being bigger and rounder was something I should remedy? Because at 4 I did not see my different shape as a negative thing, just an interesting difference. I suspect the change happened, curiously enough, sometime around my seventh year, as that is the period in which I first remember becoming aware that my body was a thing I hypothetically could -- and therefore should -- change. 

There are probably developmental reasons for this. Generally speaking, by seven years old, most kids are starting the long transition to fully independent thinking and decision-making, and in so doing are beginning to look more toward their peers as social models for what is “normal” and acceptable. Another critical part of this process is learning to problem-solve -- most kids at this age are developing the skills to resolve issues on their own, while still relying on some support from adults. 

Given this context, it makes sense that this would be a common age for kids to learn about -- and even adopt -- dieting or other weight-loss driven behaviors. We know that kids have an awareness of fat people as being “bad” from as young as two years old (the studies on kids’ overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward obese peers are literally too numerous to link; that’s just one example). But it makes sense that they might not have the intellectual resources to conceive and adopt a plan to change their size until they reach 6 or 7 years of age.

It says something about us, as a culture and as a social community, that our obsession with weight is so ubiquitous and unavoidable that even the children of parents who make a conscious effort to protect their kids from this sort of mindset cannot fully succeed at it. 

But the battle is also made difficult because of parents like Dara-Lynn Weiss, the mom who famously wrote an article for Vogue about putting her 7-year-old daughter on a diet, and who subsequently published a book on the experience. Weiss has been thoroughly eviscerated for not only making her child diet -- notably, this outrage often ignores the fact that shocking numbers of kids this age and younger are "dieting" on their own anyway -- but also for publicizing the experience in the way that she has.

Which, I’ll admit, I too find a little troubling, not only for the cultural message it sends, but also because of the enormous pressure it has to impose on her actual real-life daughter, who for a while yet will have to be that fat girl whose mom made her diet and then wrote a book about it. 

While I’ve no doubt that Weiss’ intentions were well meant -- she has been clear that her concerns were not for her daughter’s appearance, but her health -- the wider effects are not necessarily so positive. Amy Cheney’s “diyet”ing daughter, it turns out, learned about dieting from a 7-year-old friend who was herself on a diet. These ideas spread between children like airborne viruses, creating a social world in which weight loss and body dissatisfaction are normal things to be concerned with, even amongst 6- and 7-year-olds.

And once this obsession is learned, it can be a hard habit to break -- or worse, it can be a lesson some kids learn TOO well. One study found that hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of 12 increased 119% between 1999 and 2006, signaling a worrying trend. Why the sudden uptick? One obvious possibility is all this relentless talk about childhood obesity.

Dina Zeckhausen is a psychologist and founder of the Eating Disorder Information Network. She sees kids in third and fourth grade who are already worried about being fat.

"There is so much emphasis on obesity," Zeckhausen said, "that there's a danger that we are going to produce a lot of anxieties in kids around weight."

Zeckhausen says that starting overweight kids on diets can trigger an obsession with food that could lead to an eating disorder. She recommends putting overweight children in a sport or becoming more active as a family and providing healthier food options.

Do you want some more terrible statistics? An oft-cited 1997 study found that 81% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat (and I think it is safe to assume that this number has not decreased as obesity panic rhetoric has become more abundant). The same study found that 51% of 9- and 10-year-old girls report feeling better about themselves if they are on a diet. 

In that context, the notion that 7-year-olds -- as well as 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds -- are self-administering diets and other forms of restriction is hardly a shocker, is it?

By 15, I was still keeping a diary. And I was still talking about my weight. In an entry that also mentions the “diet pizza” I had for lunch (I believe this was the Jenny Craig era of my ill-spent adolescence) I wrote,  “I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish I was thin. I wish I had a 4.0 average. I wish I wasn’t wishing for so much. I’m pretty happy as I am.”

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Me today, still writing about my weight. Albeit in a different way.

I couldn’t have articulated it then, but this was the cognitive dissonance that informed so much of my relationship with my body, well into adulthood, and the same is probably true for many of you reading this as well. My happiness was not the goal. My happiness had pretty much nothing to do with it.  

The message that I had successfully digested and internalized, along with so many of my dieting and weight-obsessed peers, was that I MUST care, even if I didn’t care. I had a role to play, a very particular socialized feminine role, and it demanded certain things of my self-image. I MUST worry about my weight, and learn to hate my body, and eat diet pizza seemingly made from cardboard and plastic, even if I feel mostly okay with myself in spite of everything. 

For me, as well as for the 9- and 10-year-old in the study above, it turns out the potential weight loss results were not the only motivating factor in dieting; the self-esteem boost of simply being on a diet was a huge benefit. Because not worrying about one’s weight is at least a sign of a weak personal character, and at worst downright immoral.

By being on a diet, I was engaged in an admirable effort; I was doing what I was supposed to do. In my case, although I was still fat, I was playing the only established social role my body allowed me to play, that of the chrysalis constantly anticipating transformation. 

These are the expectations girls (and to an increasing extent, boys) are growing up with. The fear of fat is not only normalized, but an encouraged social bonding ritual; we are all supposed to hate our bodies, and we are all supposed to connect over that shared self-imposed unhappiness. We are all supposed to diet and self-restrict together. We are all supposed to be ever aspiring after some impossible goal, regardless of whether we are actually happy with ourselves and our bodies, on our own terms. 

You think I’m wrong? Try walking into a dressing room during swimsuit-shopping season and loudly extolling the virtues of your own ass. And all the better if said ass is not the product of hours upon hours of careful sculpting via the gym or surgical intervention, but has some lumpiness about it. Nobody knows how to respond to a woman who likes her body as it is. Because nobody wants women to like their bodies as they are. It’s unseemly. It’s confusing. And it’s decidedly unladylike. 

Amy Cheney’s seven-year-old daughter was doomed from the start; no amount of careful parenting could ever protect her from the preponderance of the culture in which we are all steeped, a culture that demands body dissatisfaction from everyone, regardless of age. This ideology may be slowly changing as the concept of self acceptance becomes more widely practiced and discussed, but until bigger strides are made, our kids are still going to be learning these behaviors and carrying them through to adulthood, then teaching them to their own offspring.  

That is, unless we work harder to break the cycle, starting with ourselves. Body loathing damages not only you and me, but also the friends and family we share it with, and the kids who absorb its conflicted messages. We are all complicit. And I believe we are responsible to one another for this, for the construction of a culture and a world where body dissatisfaction is not the norm, but body diversity is, where differences are valued and individual autonomy -- whether it includes dieting or not -- is respected. We need to shift the way we think. Because change is never going to happen unless we work together to achieve it.