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…chubby schoolgirls?

The numerous panics about children's bodyshape are more of a problem than whether our kids are too fat or too thin.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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Nathalie Rothschild says the endless panics about children’s bodyshape could pose more of a long-term health threat than a bit of excess puppy fat.

A new British study of the way girls play at school recommends schools to encourage or even compel children to wear clothes ‘suitable for active play’, like sweatshirts, trousers and trainers. It also recommends football, apparently played almost exclusively by boys, be banned from sections of the playground to encourage girls to stay active for longer and help tackle obesity.

With today’s obsession with body size, reflected in the ever-growing panic about Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’ and the repeated controversies surrounding ‘size zero’ models, it is hardly surprising if some young people have a problem with body image. Normal, healthy children are being infected with an unhealthy obsession about the way they look.

Carrie Paechter, a professor at the department of educational studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, carried out the research into ‘playground dynamics’. After following groups of nine- to 11-year-old girls at two schools – one in central London and one in a leafy suburb – and armed with experience in researching power and gender issues, Paechter has concluded that girls are often static observers of games dominated by boys. ‘For some girls’, she says, ‘physical immobility was seen to be an important marker of femininity, severely restricting their activity as they sought to establish themselves as mature and desirable.’ (1)

So what? Girls judging each other in the playground, sometimes ruthlessly, and boys not wanting girls in their football teams are hardly new phenomena. But through the gaze of academic researchers and bullying- and obesity-obsessed adults, plain obstinacy (like refusing to take part in physical education lessons or move around during breaks), power negotiations (who’s in and who’s out), and other behaviour that’s just part of growing up and socialising in schools, are pathologised and seen as alarming signs that the ‘obesity epidemic’ is growing and must be stopped by any means necessary. Simply saying it’s good for kids to play is not enough anymore. According to Paechter’s recommendations, playtime must be regulated by telling children what to wear, how to play, and how to relate to the opposite sex.

As has been argued elsewhere on spiked, obesity statistics are often fattened up. With differing definitions of obesity, and ways of measuring it, it is difficult to assess just who really is overweight to a degree that requires intervention. Overstating the dangers is likely to inspire more panics, wasting resources on studies into ‘playground dynamics’ while robbing kids of the opportunity to enjoy the unalloyed pleasures of playing and eating.

While plump girls and boys used to be said to have ‘puppy fat’, they are now said to suffer from childhood obesity, potentially facing an adulthood of heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and cancer. ‘Body mass index’ is a pretty poor measure of obesity in adults – it’s even worse when it comes to children. A child’s body changes in height, weight and composition to a greater extent than an adult’s. To some degree, the reasons are purely biological, like the ‘adolescent growth spurt’ and puberty. But on top of that, children’s interests, social life and values are changing as well and the nine to 11-year-olds studied by Paechter are likely to change their ‘lifestyles’ many times throughout the remainder of their childhood and their adult lives.

That fewer children walk to school today is often used as an example to indicate that they have become less physically active. Yet those who criticise parents for driving their kids around instead of letting them make their own way to school do not acknowledge the fact that there is also a widespread panic about children’s safety. While letting kids out on their own to play is seen as irresponsible, so is driving them around to attend school and social activities; while allowing kids to eat or watch commercials for ‘junk food’ is regarded as irresponsible, so is exposing them to magazines featuring ‘stick-thin’ models.

The conflicting panics are more worrying than the fact that, as Paechter’s report states, girls in Year Six prefer to stand around and chat rather than run around. It is fair to say that teachers often know what’s good for children and that it’s no bad thing for kids to play and get some exercise. But focusing on banal issues such as telling schools to provide ‘gender neutral sports’ and forcing kids to wear trainers is just adding to the stigmatisation of perfectly healthy kids. From this point of view, young girls who don’t play games during breaks should be told they may face a doom-laden future of disease and passivity, or spend the rest of their lives eating fast food takeaways in front of the television.

With government ministers imposing healthy eating schemes in schools, introducing fat charts in classrooms to make sure children are the ‘right weight’ for their age, height and sex, and condemning ‘stick thin’ girls, we are not likely to relieve young people of an unhealthy obsession with their appearance any time soon.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

(1) Compulsory trainers and trousers – a new plan to combat obesity among schoolgirls, Guardian, 9 April 2007

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spiked-issue: Obesity

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Topics Politics

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