Just Big Kids

3rd February 2012

‘Oh Grandma, what big teeth you have…’ remarked Little Red Riding Hood, once upon a time. These days, however, it seems more likely to be the other way round.

Clare Finney reports…

Better nutrition, lower rates of smoking and better healthcare all mean that children in 21st century Britain have not just bigger teeth, but also bigger feet, bigger legs and bigger bellies than their counterparts in earlier eras. The average 18 year old boy is a full inch and a half (3.8cm) taller than those of the same age group 30 years ago and, more worryingly, NHS research conducted only a month ago revealed that one in three children leaving primary school is either obese or overweight.

The consequences of these changes are manifold, and are not wholly unrelated; naturally bigger waistbands make for taller children later on. Yet while height is harmless (as far as health is concerned) the implications of waist size are enough to make even couch potato parents sit up and take note.

Diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer all feature – and that’s before you get to the issue of mental health. Links between teenage suicides and their body mass index (yes, there is a connection) may seem on the extreme side, but the other end of the spectrum is still miserable. “You come to dread PE lessons,” says a friend who struggled with her size at school. “You’ll think of any excuse not to attend them. And then of course you get fatter, and you just feel worse.”

Her reaction is typical of children on the large side, and is something that teachers are struggling to overcome. As primary school headmistress Wendy Fox points out, “If they are overweight they are poor runners and footballers and so won’t enjoy games anyway. Often they cannot ‘find’ their PE kit and parents write in with excuses.”

Of course, that just compounds the problem. The chain of consequences is as sad as it is historic: the unsporty kids get bullied, spend their playtimes indoors and their activity level plummets even more. With it goes their health and self esteem. “As they don't want to play and don't mix with others they slowly become isolated,” Ms Fox continues. “They don't like themselves, and this impacts on learning and achievement.”

That this can happen to little boys sounds terrible – it is, truly, terrible – but it is the girls in this scenario that suffer most. The onset of puberty is triggered by weight gain: the heavier the child, the earlier they start it – and with girls you don’t need a doctorate in biology to know when puberty strikes.

“For the last 30 years we’ve been looking at girls going into puberty as early as 12,” reports Tam Fry, Honorary Chairman of the Child Growth Foundation and spokesperson of the National Obesity Forum. “Now there are even signs of puberty occurring while they’re still at primary school.” While some blame chemicals such as oestrogen in the water, Fry and his colleagues say that childhood obesity is the biggest culprit. “If you are the right weight to trigger puberty a year or two younger than is usual, then you go into the puberty…” he explains simply, adding “But the real tragedy of that is such girls will be vulnerable socially as well as emotionally.”

The statistics speak for themselves: nearly a quarter of all abortions in Britain are carried out on girls under the age of 20, a report revealed this month, a figure surpassed only by Belgium within the EU. Teenage pregnancies are soaring – Harrow alone experienced a 35 per cent rise – and the risks to girls who look older than their years are plain to see.

“If you are a nine year old and you look like a 16 year old and some marauding male says, ‘Hey, that’s the nice looking girl for me’, then you have open invitation to abuse,” Fry sombrely points out. Yet, as Ms Fox explains, intersex relations are affected even among young boys and girls at school. “Recent years have seen us move sex education lessons from Year Six to Year Five,” she says. “The hormones flying about lead to moody, stroppy girls disengaged with learning and not having fun.” Boys and girls as young as seven refuse change for sports together. Early signs of breast development lead both astray. “It’s almost always the larger girls who start puberty unusually early” says Mrs Fox. “It’s not height, it’s because they are overweight.”

So who is to blame? The child growth expert and the headteacher are divided; Tam Fry criticises the government, but, after spending countless fruitless hours writing letters home about poor lunchboxes, Ms Fox says that parents are the problem. “They are fat and don't think themselves or their children are,” she says adamantly. “The government already has a programme of weighing and measuring Year Six, and has put a lot of money into sport and Healthy School Awards.”

Really, asks Fry? Then why is it that we have seen obesity rising among adults and children alike? “Pretty much every government for the past generation has been inept at introducing anything to counteract obesity,” he says drily. “All they are interested in doing is trying to slim down people who already fat rather than preventing it in the first place.” That will take time and determination, he adds – no easy task for governments who “only really think in blocks of five years.” Now, what the credit crunch and subsequent lack of funding for health programmes, Fry doesn’t expect change any time soon.

Finger-pointing aside however, one thing is beyond doubt: chubby children become well padded adults. “Studies have shown overweight 10-to-15 year olds are about 80 percent more likely to be overweight at 25,” says Fry, and this is reinforced by the British Nutrition Foundation’s nutrition scientist Dr Áine O'Connor who, like every good doctor, believes prevention is key. “It is crucial to emphasise the importance of a healthy varied diet as well as adequate physical activity levels from an early age,” she explains to me. “Environmental factors, such as the ready availability of energy-dense foods and drinks and limited opportunity to be physically active can contribute toward obesity.” For O’Connor, the costs are long term medical complications: “Heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and other conditions”.

And there’s another, more immediate, side to this fleshy predicament: money.

“What really bothers me about Marks and Spencer is their pricing structure for children’s clothes”, writes user ‘Hilpet’, in response to a Daily Mail reader request for feedback on the store last year. “Why should we be penalised as our children grow?”

A price check online confirms her criticism; many ranges do charge more for larger sizes of the same clothes, so a six year old with the waist and height of a 13 year old could see their parents paying up to £6 more. By the time these children are actually 13 of course, they’ll be needing adult sizes – and that, Fry points out, means VAT. “Even if they are still a child, the amount of material used in adult clothes means VAT has to be charged ” he explains. “It’s getting more and more expensive for parents.”

Of course, the customer’s painful price hike is a retailer’s gain. M&S and many other uniform stockists are now selling above average sizes, and some enterprising merchants have even gone so far as to set up shops dedicated to the ‘kids of today’. In 2005 mother Maggie Snouck realised that children’s feet were “wider and bigger than when I was a child,” and co-founded Papillon, which stocks kids’ footwear all the way up to adult size 10. “By doing all these shoes that traditionally would be classed as adult sizes, we filled a gap in the market. We’ve had huge interest so far.”

“For too long our bigger kids have been the forgotten few, having to make do with ill fitting clothes,” agrees Sturdy Kids, a specialist store which dedicates a section of its website to defining ‘sturdy’ in the most euphemistic way. ‘Having or showing rugged physical strength… Substantially made or built… Stout…Vigorous or robust…’ it states, without a trace of irony or awareness. No wonder Áine O’Connor cites the “acceptability of being overweight and obese” as a contributory cause. If child seats are wider (they are), if traditional school desks are being changed to tables (they will be), if having an adult size 18 waist on a teenage girl is more typical than taboo, then we’ve lost the fight against fat before we’ve even got started. I ask Fry if he holds out much hope.

“I’m very pessimistic,” comes the reply. “We have a lot of literature now which says for first time in centuries the life expectancy of children might be lower than that of their parents.”
It’s a grim note to end on, but there is no getting round it. This is a very big problem indeed.

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