“Saying something negative about yourself is sort of an icebreaker when you meet new girls. If they say something bad about themselves, you’re supposed to say something similar back. If you don’t, or if you say something good about yourself, then you’re afraid people will think you’re conceited.” – Sarah Bryant, age 12
This was an interesting observation I heard recently – especially coming from my own daughter. As with most moms and dads, encouraging self-esteem has been on my parental radar since day one. It was disheartening to learn that the bonding process for young girls often begins with mutual flaw-finding. Indeed, according to one study, girls’ self-esteem peaks at age nine. (Source: NYU Child Study Center.) How do our little girls go from seeing everything their growing bodies can do to focusing only on its imperfections?
Media and marketing influences
“It’s interesting to see how girls interpret the media messages directed at them,” says Shawn Jackson, Executive Director of the Grace Academy, a leadership and self-development program for girls ages 14 to 17. “During our workshops, which often focus on body image and self-esteem, we have girls keep a journal for one week to write down every example of when they feel women are being portrayed in negative, unrealistic or unhealthy ways in magazines, television, movies, etc. What one girl finds problematic, another one doesn’t. Having them discuss their impressions with each other can be very impactful.”
Finding examples to fill such a journal would not be difficult with the magnitude of advertising targeted to young girls and the standard of physical beauty being portrayed meeting such narrow criteria. While the average U.S. woman is 5’ 4” and 140 pounds, the average model is 5’ 11” and 117 pounds. Girls are often unaware that the models in magazines have bodies that have been airbrushed and photoshopped to an impossibly unattainable degree. With advertisers anxious to sell products promising to melt away pounds, smooth cellulite, whiten teeth and correct unruly hair, there is certainly no incentive to make young girls feel good about accepting themselves the way they are.
Boys are not immune to the issue of body image either. In fact, in a University of Wisconsin article entitled “Muscle Madness” the author writes, “One study suggests that a trend in toy action figures’ increasing muscularity is setting unrealistic ideals for boys in much the same way Barbie dolls have been accused of giving an unrealistic ideal for girls. When G.I. Joe first appeared in 1964, he had a body most boys could aspire to and achieve. Today’s G.I. Joe action figures are so muscular they would be difficult to emulate without the use of steroids.”
If you’ve ever tried to crash diet or compulsively exercise to fit into a dress for a class reunion or wedding, you’re in good company with many women. Unfortunately, while the event may pass, the message this approach sends to our daughters lingers. “Moms who crash diet or follow the latest exercise trends are focusing on appearance, not health,” says Jackson. “Even if your daughter doesn’t comment on what you’re doing, she’s still watching.”
In the same manner, while a mother might refrain from criticizing her daughter’s body, she may engage in a running dialogue about what’s wrong with her own. When adult women relate by trading comments about their flaws, they set the standard for what is considered normal and acceptable, and daughters follow suit. “A mother’s role is so important in developing a girl’s self-image,” says Jackson, who includes mothers in her workshops to help them understand how they influence their daughter’s body perception. She adds, “Fathers also play an important role. Not only how a dad talks to his daughter, but how his daughter sees him talk to her mother.”
The link to eating disorders
While many girls are able to keep their perceived body flaws in perspective, for other girls these issues can escalate into eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Donna McCurdy, mother of three in Fishers says, “I see my 17-year-old daughter worry about her friends that talk nonstop about their weight and what they eat. Some of her friends feel pressure from their family to lose weight.” McCurdy is smart to be concerned, as the National Eating Disorders Association reports that more than one in three normal dieters progresses to pathological dieting.
How can a parent determine if their child might have an eating disorder? An obsession with losing weight, eating alone or in secret, hoarding food, vising web sites that promote binging or other unhealthy habits and obsessing over appearance are among the warning signs. A “wait and see” approach to addressing a potential eating disorder is a mistake, as the toll of deleterious eating habits can quickly affect a growing body. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, hospitalizations for children under the age of 12 with eating disorders have risen dramatically in recent years. The rate of males being diagnosed with eating disorders has also substantially increased.
Toward a better body image
Although girls may be bombarded with messages that their body doesn’t measure up, what they hear at home can have the greatest impact on how they view themselves. As McCurdy says, “We are our children’s greatest teachers. They learn by example and listen to what we say even when we think they aren’t. We must talk to our girls about this subject because they’re talking about it with their friends every day.”
Discussing body image with your daughter should be an ongoing dialogue. Here are some suggestions to keep up the conversation:
Explain how puberty and genetics affects body types. Help your daughter understand that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty. Discuss how body shape is influenced by genetic factors.
Talk about self-image. Ask your daughter what she likes about herself and describe what you like about her.
Use positive language. Take “fat” and “thin” out of your vocabulary. Discourage hurtful nicknames and don’t joke about people who are overweight.
Counter negative media messages. Expose your daughter to women who are famous for their achievements, not their appearance.
Praise positive efforts. Help your child value what she does over what she looks like.
Set a good example. Remind your daughter that you exercise and eat healthy because it’s good for your health, not just to look a certain way.
Real girl power
“There is a natural tendency for some girls to dim their own light,” says Jackson. “When a girl receives a compliment such as ‘you have such a pretty smile’ her immediate reaction is often to reply with something like ‘but my teeth aren’t white enough.’ Accepting a compliment with a simple ‘thank you’ is very hard for many girls. It’s hard for their mothers, too.”
We hear the catch phrase “girl power’ frequently in our culture. This “power” is often represented as a brassy attitude and polished image rather than any real influence or substance. No power is gained when women see their value only in physical terms, feel they fall short when compared to an impossibly high beauty standard or choose to support each other only in their shortcomings. When we teach a girl to confidently accept her strengths, keep her weaknesses in perspective and recognize that her happiness isn’t dependent on what she looks like, she will truly be powerful – and an example for the next generation.