I’d like you to come with me for a moment and enter stage left on every Scout leader’s most disliked experience. It’s raining, your scouts are trying to strike camp. And somebody somewhere is having some kind of “issue”. Odds are a couple of the lads have had a “full and frank exchange of views” and are right now squaring up to each other. Or else somebody has dropped something heavy on a painful part of their body. Kids are great at picking their moments.
“What’s up?” I trot over to the site of the commotion.
“It’s R,” someone says. “She’s not well”.
R is slumped on the floor looking, for want of a better word, like death warmed up. Her worried looking patrol leader (a senior 13/14 year old scout for the uninitiated) and a couple of her friends are stood next to her. R looks pale and is pretty tearful. I deal with it, the gathering crowd are shooed away and I find out the story. In short she’s knackered. She’s knackered because she’s been on the go for the last 3 hours, but unlike the rest of them quietly went without breakfast (and that is to my discredit for not noticing). A mug of hot chocolate and a slab of kendal mint cake later and she is back up and running with her blood sugar back to where it should be. Spot of first aid on camp, not a big issue you might say.
Actually it is a big issue because R is 12 years old and scared of getting fat. And she’s not alone.
As it happens the above is fiction, it would not be appropriate to recount events about a real child, yet it isn't a total lie. It's based on several similar incidents that both I and fellow Scout and Guide leader friends have dealt with. Luckily I have never had to deal with any child with a full on eating disorder, although I know others that have. Yet from what I have seen I don't think it will be long before I do. It may end up being a boy (pressure on boys to be perfect is growing but that is another story for another day) but most likely it will be a girl.
How has it got to the point that I, a 32 year old man, am scraping 12 years girls up off the floor because they are not eating enough? I don’t think that there is a simple answer to that, the reasons are pretty complex, but one of those reasons is, I am convinced, the media obsession with female celebrities and what they look like.
Shortly before Christmas the Daily Mail published this article about Megan Fox. It seems she had the audacity to lose some weight and was a bit thin for the liking of the Mail. It wasn’t that long ago that another celeb was too fat for the Mail (complete with oh-so-subtle comment about curry and pint deal at her local). It doesn’t even have to be the fat/thin thing to get the tabloids (or indeed sometimes the broadsheets) going. It includes almost constant stories about how any woman in the public eye looks, how they dress, what surgery they’ve had, what they’ve done with their hair, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. It seems that what women look like has become the only topic in town.
At the time of writing, on the front page of the Mail website there are no less than 27 stories about what various women celebrities look like, and 3 about men (plus one about Romeo Beckham - don’t think he counts as a man just yet does he?).
And it is not just the tabloids, it’s women’s magazines, men’s magazines, TV shows, broad sheets, websites, you name the media source and it’s there (with the possible exception of radio). It seems like there is a never ending drip feed of the same message, “you have to look perfect, you have to look perfect, you have to look perfect”. And that drip feed hits home every where, from mature adults through teenagers and now to frighteningly young kids.
The result of that does not always result in kids keeling over from lack of food. It manifests itself in a number of other ways. It’s the girl that won’t go canoeing because the wet suit makes her look fat, or won’t use sunscreen because she has to have the perfect tan. And on each occasion you wonder where such a young girl is getting the impression that she has to look perfect, that it really would be a disaster to look anything other than perfect. And time again I come back to the media. Looking at the fronts of magazines in WH Smith, every one of the women’s magazines seems to be obsessed with the latest diet and the shape of whoever is the celeb of the moment. Doesn’t X look amazing for losing weight? Isn’t Y struggling to fight the pounds? And so on and so forth.
Of course the attitude of some boys doesn’t help either (and yes, in Scouts we do crack down on it), yet even some of the attitudes of teenage boys, treating girls simply as sexual objects which is appearing at an increasingly early age can be traced to the media and in particular the grossly irresponsible "lads' mags".
There are of course women who use their body image to make money, as is their right, but we are not talking here about the portrayal of professional models or those who deliberately court attention. It is those constant stories where celebs are snapped while on holiday or out shopping or in the park with their kids, the constant media intrusion that worries me. Those stories show that yes, the glamorous actress does sometimes walk to the corner shop for a pint of milk wearing a hoodie and no makeup, just like we all do. Yet rather than any hint that this is totally normal behaviour girls are told that this is weird, you can’t possibly do that! And so impressionable young girls get the impression that they have to look perfect (whatever that means) all the time and start to worry when they don’t.
I don’t write this pretending to have any answers, I don’t really know where you begin trying to change the whole sorry mess (although on a personal level I hope that organisations like scouts and guides provide an environment where kids can learn that there is far more to their self worth than what they look like). I don’t know what you try and change first or how. But until something does change I guess I’ll just carry on scraping 12 year old girls up off the floor.
This is a guest post by Akela. He's a left wing, enviromentalist, Christian, cheese-eating, football-following, real ale-drinking Scout Leader with a serious dislike of the tabloids. A wannabe children's writer, he used to blog regularly but now just surfaces on other people's blogs instead.