22/10/2015 16:34 BST | Updated 22/10/2016 06:12 BST

Body Image Affects Children Far Younger Than You Might Expect And It's Boys as Well as Girls

As someone who has achieved enormous success without having conformed to society's 'ideals', Lena Dunham is brilliantly outspoken on the issue of body image. She once said: "I was a babysitter before I started working in film, and I would hear, like, seven-year-old girls that I babysat say, 'I think I need to go on a diet'... and it cracks my heart open."

I know what she means. Nothing has made me stop in my tracks quite like hearing my then five-year-old son refuse to wear a new puffer jacket I had bought him for his first school term, 'Because it makes me look fat.'

He as slim as a racing snake, but I was alarmed that any five-year-old boy was conscious of the way his clothes made him look.

If I'm honest, I assumed that little boys would somehow be less self-deprecating than their female peers. I expected my son to be immune to worrying about his body image until puberty and that first terrifying shower room comparison.

And this is a boy who, the same summer, had been running around the garden naked and uninhibited, showing off his bicycle tricks and running under the sprinkler in full view of friends and family. Why was he was suddenly being judgey and self-critical?

According to the US child advocacy group Common Sense Media, kids are developing concerns about body image at a far younger age than you might expect. In their report in January, they concluded that 'multiple factors - especially parents, some media, and peers - are influential. They found that more than half of girls and a third of boys as young as six to eight think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. By age seven, one in four kids has engaged in some kind of dieting behaviour, the report said.

The largest UK study on eating disorders in children followed 6,000 kids to the age of 14 and found that self-esteem in eight-year-olds is one of the critical predictive factors for problems in the teens. At the age of eight, 5% of girls and 3% of boys in the study were already dissatisfied with their body. Scary.

My son has only ever stood on weighing scales to calculate the difference between himself and his brother. He eats voraciously at every meal. We don't have to worry. But the puffer jacket incident wasn't isolated. There are a few things he simply won't wear, however cold it is outside. There is a continuing battle over the idea of wearing a ski suit.

So knowing I was writing this post, I asked him at breakfast today, 'What do you think fat actually is?'

'It's something that makes you get bigger and bigger, or if you're lazy, you get fat.' Anything else? I asked. 'Well, fat in food, like in meat and things, is bad for you.'

That's really worrying, isn't it? In our house we don't diet, fast or cut out entire food groups. But in our culture, even very young children are inundated by all-pervading media and advertising images: the beautiful blonde families with Californian-smiles selling us toothpaste, property and holidays, skipping together along the shore of palm-fringed beaches, toned and tanned. Of course they don't fill the brochures with flabby, pale post-natal mothers struggling to apply sun cream to screaming toddlers. Why? Because reality just isn't half as attractive.

Once they're at school, you can't control what they overhear in the classroom or in the playground, where 'fat' is the new 'ugly', and the war on obesity? That's filtering down in some pretty misguided messages. Before we know it, they'll have Instagram accounts and be open to all the nasty judgments that children seem at ease making from their devices. But for now, the biggest influence on young boys and girls is their parents. Gulp.

I would love to pretend that I have never looked in the mirror and had a moan about a bulge or imperfection in front of my kids but, of course, I have. Although I might have been fishing for a compliment or just having a crap day, it's the same old message compounded. "I'm imperfect and that is a problem for which I lack self-esteem".

Of course body image isn't just about weight, it's being too short, too tall, too thin. Wearing glasses or having big feet. Anything that doesn't conform to the norm. We need to remind our children that different is good, and that there are more important things to consider at the tender age of five, than how fat you look in a puffer jacket.

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