Fat obsessed children

Just over a year ago, around the time of his ninth birthday, Zach Hewitt, a Surrey schoolboy, began doing a few exercises. The odd stomach crunch or bicep curl – nothing too extreme. Then one day he looked in the mirror and decided that he had to do much, much more: he had to get serious about fitness.

“I saw that I was extremely fat compared with what I’d like to be and I ran out of puff a lot more than friends. I looked at myself and thought ‘I didn’t used to look like this; I need to get into shape’. I try my hardest not to be fat because I’m scared of it.”

Getting in shape for Zach meant a grueling daily schedule, which a year later he still maintains. According to his mother Nicci, a part-time graphic designer: “He gets up, has breakfast and goes to school. He comes home and goes straight out to the trampoline where he works out for 45 minutes. Even if it’s raining, even in the depths of winter, he’s out there. After a healthy supper, where he carefully watches what he eats, he will do additional exercises before bed: press-ups, sit-ups and stomach crunches.”

So how fat is Zach? The shocking truth is not at all, not by any stretch of any fattist imagination could he be described as fat. With his shirt off you see Zach’s size for what it really is: spot on for a boy his age, a boy who’s just turned 10 and still fits into his Year 8 or 9-sized clothes. Nicci says that he’s has always been the same: “Zach’s never been fat, he was cuddly as a toddler, but he’s never been a fat child.”

So where has this misplaced belief that he is large come from and why is a normal-looking ten-year-old boy so “scared” of being fat? Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University and an expert in eating disorders, says that 20 per cent of nine and ten-year-old girls claim that they are dieting to lose weight and twice that number say that they’ve tried it in the past. For boys, who have evidently “always been part of the picture”, the figure is around 5 to 8 per cent and increasing. Hill points out that children are all too aware of how important appearance is and how people are judged on it. “There’s a great emphasis in society on appearance. You see it in magazines, in newspapers, on billboards. You don’t have to be a certain age to understand its importance. It’s reinforced through your peer group, with your parents, with other significant adults.”

Nicci blames magazines and TV: “Most of the role models he sees are muscular men, either models, or guys in boy bands, or wrestlers. Zach wants to be like them and his aim is to get a six-pack. You don’t see many normal people with their tops off in magazines so it’s hard for him to get a view of what’s normal.”

Understandably, Nicci is worried that Zach may “become too obsessed” with his healthy eating and fitness regime, but hopes that she can stop this happening by keeping an eye on him and talking regularly about it to him.

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