Children as young as five are being treated in hospital for severe anorexia in a shocking illustration of how early they can become obsessed with body image.
A total of 98 youngsters aged between five and seven have been admitted during the last three years because of eating disorders normally associated with teenagers and adults.
A further 99 aged eight and nine were admitted over the same period, as were almost 400 aged between ten and 12, and 1,500 between 13 and 15.
The number of under-nines needing hospital treatment has doubled in the past year.
And these represent only the most severe cases, where children have become so desperately underweight that their lives are in danger.
There are likely to be many more youngsters with milder eating disorders who have not been taken to hospital.
The statistics, released by NHS trusts around Britain under the freedom of information act, underline the worry that youngsters – particularly girls – are increasingly obsessed with being thin.
Many idolise ultra-slim models and celebrities they see in magazines and on TV, and try to slim in the hope they will look similar.
Senior doctors and nutritionists warn that very young children are developing an ‘unhealthy relationship’ with food.
Girls in particular often compare themselves to their friends and in some cases will even compete to see who can losethe most weight. Experts warn that girls are now beginning to compare themselves with ‘size zero’ models and celebrities when they are still at primary school.
Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the eating disorders charity Beat, said some are so frightened of developing curves when they reach puberty that they starve themselves to try to keep their slender child-like figures.
She said: ‘The ideal figure promoted for women these days is that of a girl, not an adult women. Girls see the pictures in magazines of extremely thin women and think that is how they should be.
‘That can leave them fearful of puberty, and almost trying to stave it off.
‘A number of factors combine to trigger eating disorders; biology and genetics play a large part in their development, but so do cultural pressures, and body image seems to be influencing younger children much more over the past decade.’
A recent survey by the YMCA suggested that nearly half of girls had been on a diet before their 14th birthday.
Nearly one in seven would consider taking slimming pills and one in 20 would take laxatives, according to the poll of more than 800 youngsters.
Rosi Prescott, chief executive of the YMCA, said: ‘As a society we are far more obsessed with body image compared with 20 years ago.‘
‘Young people are trying to make themselves look as appealing as possible and they are looking up to these celebrities and models as references, even though many are not real because they have been airbrushed.’
‘They are becoming preoccupied with what they eat and developing an unhealthy relationship with food.’
Until today, mention the word anorexia and you’d probably think of teenage girls starving themselves for a variety of emotional reasons.
But now anorexia has become a scourge which is stripping children as young as five to their very bones. Whether a child develops a serious eating disorder is a complex mixture of genetics and biology.
But the fact that nearly 200 girls aged between five and nine have needed hospital treatment over the last three years shows how our children are paying the price for growing up in a celebrity culture.
In today’s looks-obsessed society, even the tiniest girls are internalising media images which tell them, simply and unequivocally, that thin equals perfect. If it’s not the girl pop stars they sing along to, it’s the talent show performers they admire and the models they want to look like.
Even their dolls come in size zero.
Of course, the responsibility for healthy eating messages must start at home with mothers. It’s up to us not to pass on our own body hang-ups or go on about diets because we think we should look like Cheryl Cole.
The tragedy is that by the time our daughters can read and write, they have also learnt to hate what they see in the mirror.
Feeling you are never good enough is a terrible curse for anyone. But it’s all the more so for our little girls, whose lives have barely begun