My son is anorexic. He's nine.

Local Mum Susannah shares the heartbreaking story of her nine-year-old son's diagnosis with anorexia and examines the shocking truth that our Media is causing children real harm

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Imagine watching your child starve, their bones protruding through their delicate skin; their ribs like an iron cage wrapped around their hollow chest. Eyes sunken and expressionless in a haunted mask like face. Watching them get weaker and weaker with each passing day as their very soul ebbs away. Wishing to god you could help your precious child but not being able to do a damn thing about it.

I could be talking about millions of children in any number of developing countries around the world here. Where extreme poverty and war ravaged economies affect whole populations, making food a luxury they simply cannot afford. Where dying of malnutrition is nothing new – a daily, hourly event. Except these children aren’t in the Sudan or Ethiopia. These are children here in our own country - England, Great Britain. One of the richest countries in the world where real extreme poverty is thankfully scarce and food is plentiful and abundant. These are children in our own towns and local schools, our neighbour’s kids, on our own doorstep. This is my son. 

This year has undoubtedly been one of the hardest years we as a family have endured. In around November last year my son, now 9, a previously engaging, sporty and humorous little soul, developed an increasingly obsessional need to exercise and control his food intake. What had started we thought as nothing more than childish finickiness – suddenly no chocolate, no chips, only ‘healthy’ food allowed. 20 sits ups here, 20 press ups there - rapidly escalated in to a rigidly controlled regime so powerful it entirely ravaged his whole being.

Battle of wills
Nothing in life was straight forward anymore.  Anything that threatened the delicately balanced status quo of daily muscle building exercises and ‘healthy’ eating was met with such explosions of raw terrified emotion the whole house would reverberate with it. We, his parents were forcibly shut out of his life unable to reach him physically or emotionally. His little sister often on the receiving end of aggressive physical outbursts as he wrestled with a complex mix of anger, fear and deep self-loathing. What had started as something he wanted to do had now become something he HAD to do. He was not in control. IT was. He didn’t want to live anymore he told me, he wanted to die. I lived in terror of what he may or may not do. Would I walk in to his bedroom one morning and find my son, my baby, dead? How would he do it? What should I hide? How could I stop it? This was the reality of our daily lives. 

This is very much a condensed version of what was ultimately a living hell on earth for us all for about 6 months. Bizarrely however I consider ourselves to be pretty lucky. As a former anorexic myself I recognised the signs early, acted fast and was fortunate enough to get my son the help he so desperately needed. In July of this year he was diagnosed with early onset anorexia at a specialist eating disorder unit for children here in Surrey. It’s still early days but so far all the signs for a full recovery are good and for that we are truly grateful. However this is sadly not the case for many other families.

Parents and siblings often have to endure months if not years of watching their children, their brothers and sisters starve themselves to the point of collapse. Watch them compulsively over exercise, slash their frail arms, vomit and take laxatives in a bid to purge themselves of calories and deep self-loathing. Once in therapy recovery is often a slow laboured battle of wills between ‘it’ the eating disorder, the patient and their families. One that is often blighted by frequent relapse and the development of additional mental and physical complications. 

Though my son was one of the youngest patients they had seen at the clinic he is sadly far from alone. According to the charity ABC (Anorexia and Bulimia Care) 3800 young people under the age of 18 have been admitted to hospital with an eating disorder in the past 4 years and cases in that time have increased by almost 10%. Shockingly of that figure 433 were children under the age of 10 and of those 270 were boys. And this figure doesn’t take in to account the number of juvenile cases treated privately or in outpatients. Disturbingly, it is not unknown for children as young as 5 and 6 to be admitted to hospital with eating disorders these days.

So why has this become such a frighteningly common part of growing up for some kids? Why is controlling their body shape - through drugs, abstinence of food and gruelling exercise seen as an intrinsically necessary part of who they are? As parents we have a tendency to immediately blame ourselves for all our children’s woes regardless of what they are. We are there to protect them and when we fall short we instantly point to our own failings. However that is far too simplistic a view in my opinion.   

To seek a more balanced answer we need to look at the sort of society our children are growing up in today. Turn on your TV, open your morning newspaper or browse your social media sites and you would be forgiven for thinking we live in an era of complete human physical ‘perfection’. Women are portrayed as gorgeous creatures of unalloyed beauty with long slender limbs, tiny wasp like waists, prepubescent hips and full rounded breasts. See the juxtaposition in that sentence? Men on the other hand are pumped-up muscular super hero types, all rippling and taut in their alpha-male honed masculinity.  

These are the images our children are fed daily through pop videos, computer games, social media sites, TV programmes, magazines and advertising. Look like this and things will be great they are told. You’ll be popular, have loads of friends; you’ll get a girlfriend or a boyfriend - in fact you’ll have loads of them. You won’t ever get bullied because everyone will want to be like you. You’ll be successful and rich; in fact you’ll have it all. God life will be fantastic! So that’s what they try and do. Obviously down that road lies happiness they think to themselves. No more self-consciousness, doubt or insecurities. No more loneliness, isolation or fear. Yet what they are trying to do – to cloak themselves in an impenetrable veil of physical perfection is just not achievable. Not realistic. Its totally anatomically impossible. 

Money, money, money
So why do these images persist despite their very obvious shortcomings. For the money of course. Be it via clothes, jewellery, cars, music or the whole glamorous, sexed up lifestyle that these consumer goods aim to embody - it all comes down to money. And quite simply it’s destroying our children. My son would watch his favourite pop stars on YouTube then stand for hours in front of a mirror examining his ‘six pack’ or poking at his tiny unformed muscles, wondering how to make them ‘bigger’ and ‘stronger’. Despite our repeated protestations that at 8 years old he was far too young to have anything like the manly figures he saw on TV or in music videos, he would sob and cry and at times even punch himself in shear frustration at and self-revulsion of his tiny childlike frame.  Hannah, a 16 year old also suffering with anorexia agrees:

 ‘I think that social media could be part of what triggered or encouraged me to lose weight so I could look like the models seen on teen clothing websites, TV, films and magazines. What they forget to advertise is the amount of photoshopping that has taken place to make these stick people look like they have flawlessly un-natural figures’ (sic)

Another parent with a dangerously ill 12 year old daughter with anorexia goes further ‘’this illness……… nothing less than a cancer. We must scream and shout and let the world know that what the media portrays is unrealistic’’ 

We are living in an increasingly homogenised society where a perfect body is seen as the pinnacle of personal achievement. We have a celebrity culture where people are now famous simply for their looks or their sexual shenanigans and where true talent has been demoted to runner up behind ‘OMG your new boobs are just fabulous darling! Lets stick you on the front of a magazine’

Don’t get me wrong – as a professional stylist I always advocate a good healthy self-image, where one takes pride in oneself to increase an overall sense of self-worth and wellbeing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good and to make the most of yourself. This is neither vain nor shallow. But increasingly the balance has tipped the other way and personal looks, image and body shape are now considered public property to be scrutinised, revered, dissected and criticised by anyone who has the inclination to do so. Be it on line or in a newspaper.

Of course, if it’s over simplistic to solely blame ourselves it would be facile to solely blame the media too. There are many other factors that contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Some are internal, like inherited genes and a predisposition. Some are external like pressure to academically perform or keep up with one’s peers. But undoubtedly the media plays a substantial part in it and for that it should shoulder its portion of responsibility. But will it? For now it seems to have shut its eyes and covered its ears and is pretending not to notice. Blithely playing ignorant to the damage it’s causing. But it won’t be able to for much longer. As parents we are taking up the call to arms and proceeding in to battle with it via fantastic campaigns like Child Eyes, No More page 3, Bare Reality and Body Marvellous. We are starting to take a stand, to say ENOUGH. And if we shout and scream and holler loud enough they’ll have to listen won’t they?

Lets start yelling and find out!

Susannah has launched  the ‘Body Marvellous’ campaign to tackle the various issues raised in this article. You can follow her on Facebook here: Body Marvellous or on Twitter here.    

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