Study: Most Girls Start Dieting By Age 8

Photo: Image Source/REX USA.
Last week, a new study from Common Sense Media made headlines by reporting that 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. Furthermore, this "horrifying new research" found that more than half of girls and one-third of boys ages six to eight want thinner bodies. Indeed, these statistics are horrifying, but they are far from new. 

In 1970, the average age a girl began dieting was 14, according to The Eating Disorder Foundation. By 1990, that age had dropped to eight. Twenty-five years later, the numbers haven't significantly changed. Each new study on children, dieting, and body image reveals only more appalling details. In 1991, 42% of first-through-third-grade girls reported wanting to be thinner. That same year, a study found that 51% of of nine- and 10-year-old girls felt better about themselves while dieting.

Many studies report a connection between parents' attitude toward dieting and children's behavior, and it will come to absolutely no one's surprise that most kids (even as young as five) hold the same beliefs about food restriction as their mothers. Perhaps more surprising is that the media seems to hold an even greater influence than a child's family. In nearly all studies regarding children and body image, test subjects list television, film, and video-game characters as the physical standards to which they aspire. It's easy to see why. Another study, in 2000, surveyed top children's movies, reporting that "72% associated thinness with positive character traits such as kindness, and three out of four videos equated obesity with undesirable qualities."

It's not only this steady stream of subconscious messages that's steering kids toward restriction and insecurity. The diet industry itself takes advantage of its influence on the younger population. Ginnifer Goodwin made some "horrifying" headlines herself a few years ago, revealing that she's been on Weight Watchers since the age of nine. Quickly, Goodwin added that she doesn't and has never had a body image issue — only a "happy" weight. "I call it my 'shooting weight,' because it's also the number that doesn't freak me out when I see myself on screen," she told Health magazine in 2010.

This factoid is hardly shocking, given how typical Goodwin's story is. Today, Weight Watchers allows children as young as 10 to join its program. Jenny Craig's age cutoff is 13, and Nutrisystem's is 14. Of course, those are only official rules. After all, Goodwin didn't put herself on the regimen at nine. Her mother did. 

None of this negates the importance of Common Sense Media's new research. If it takes hundreds of studies to raise awareness, then bring 'em on. But, we have lost the right to be "horrified" by this information. Anyone who thinks children are not being psychologically and physically harmed by the diet culture is willfully ignoring the facts.

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