Eating disorders emerging among children as young as 10
Ms Bird said it was mainly high schools, though Butterfly did work with children from grade 5 and up, and primary schools were sharing some issues they were seeing with their students.
“Primary schools say that there is a lot of appearance-based teasing going on,” Ms Bird said. “Boys are maybe mentioning girls around their weight or their body hair or changes to do with puberty. We’ve also heard about one primary school where the girls were weighing themselves in the evening and texting and sharing their weights with each other.”
Journalist Madonna King, the author of Ten-Ager: What Your Daughter Needs You to Know about the Transition from Child to Teen, said 10 was the new start of adolescence and her research confirmed eating disorders, and also self harm, were emerging in younger and younger children.
King said it was now common for 10-year-olds to have a smartphone – especially after the pandemic lockdown – but they mostly did not have the critical thinking skills to see beyond the perfect images on the screens.
“If I had to tell you the most common two words from my research among 10-year-olds, it’s ‘fitting in’,” King said. “They tend to be tolerant of their friends but brutally judgmental about themselves.”
Mia Findlay, 33, from Centennial Park in Sydney developed anorexia and bulimia at 19 but her body image issues started much younger.
She said that as a child she was a healthy weight but tall, and says she always felt uncomfortable when people made comments about her height or size. By the age of 10 this had developed into intense dissatisfaction and distress, and she started dieting – running every day on the treadmill, throwing out her lunches and becoming a very picky eater.
A defining moment came at age 15 when she went to the beach with her mother and some teenage boys started oinking at her and calling her a “pig” and a “Christmas ham”. When she lost weight, she was complimented by well-meaning people who didn’t know they were cheering on the early stages of her eating disorder.
Ms Findlay said that at age 10 she was influenced by her family and friends, but knew from her work as an advocate and educator that 10-year-olds today had additional pressures.
“Now they have access to Instagram where you have unqualified individuals posting dietary advice and what they eat in a day, which is pretty restrictive, and that’s just confusing them and influencing them negatively more and more,” she said.
Korey Baruta, 23, from Research in Melbourne remembers being dissatisfied with her body from the age of five, despite being a healthy weight. She did dance classes from the age of three to 18 and her body image issues were fuelled by the norms of the dance world.
“Being constantly in front of mirrors was like a breeding ground for self comparison,” she said. “When I was 10 years old I was told by one of my ballet teachers that I could never be a dancer with my body shape and this really rattled me.”
She developed anorexia in her late teens, culminating in hospitalisation, and has been recovered for three years.
Ms Baruta said she did not have social media when she was growing up but photos were common and seeing herself in group photos always triggered self-loathing.
Ms Baruta downloaded TikTok to entertain herself during the pandemic and soon noticed that many of the trends and viral videos were based around physical appearance and often glamorised restrictive eating and eating disorders. It landed in her feed without her asking for it, often popping up unexpectedly.
“I fear if someone was already restricting their diet, these social platforms have the ability to exacerbate this and ultimately lead to an eating disorder,” she said.
Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE) or email@example.com
· Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline on 1300 550 23
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