“That the girls don’t start a diet straight after thinking about losing weight is a new, and in many ways pleasing, discovery,” said author of the study Josefin Westerberg-Jacobson of Uppsala University to local paper Upsala Nya Tidning (UNT).
According to her this could mean that there is still time to counteract the bodyweight fixation before it leads to the development of eating disorders.
The study has followed the girls since they were between 7 and 11 years old.
Over the course of eight years, the scientists have given them a series of questionnaires regarding their attitudes to food, eating and their own body weight, as well as their mealtime and exercise habits.
Ann Wallbom Fagraeus, a specialist on child and youth psychiatry, has worked with eating disorders since 1993, and told daily Aftonbladet that the skinny ideal is creeping down in ages.
“What we are seeing generally is that the adult world’s demands on what you should be able to handle is now reaching young kids. The idea that ‘children should be allowed to be children’ is not easy to maintain today,” she told the paper.
According to the study, as many as one in five 7-year-old girls wished she was thinner. This number then increased as the girls grew older.
When they had reached 16, more than half of the girls wished they weighed less.
The number of girls who actively tried to lose weight also increased with age from a few percent of the young girls to almost half of the older.
“Among the girls aged between 14 and 18, one in eight used extreme dieting measures such as skipping meals, using dieting pills or taking laxatives, “ said Westerberg-Jacobson to UNT.
According to the study there were many reasons for why the girls wanted to lose weight.
Most answered that they wanted to feel happy about themselves, but many also wanted to avoid being taunted at school and comments from family members – especially fathers.
“It is extremely important that fathers support their daughters in having a natural puberty, which means gaining weight and getting female curves,” said Wallbom Fagraeus to Aftonbladet.
Wallbom Fagraeus also stressed that the mother’s body image and attitude to body weight was also very important for how the daughter perceived herself.
In order to combat the body weight fixation, Westerberg-Jacobson thinks that society needs to question the ‘skinny ideal’, which is prevalent on TV and in the media.
“There are girls out there who could benefit from losing weight but extreme dieting methods are a bad way to achieve this,” she said to UNT.
The study has been published in the trade journal European Eating Disorder Review.