Girls and body image. Most parents acknowledge its importance but what can they do? First, is understanding just how vital a healthy body image is for girls’ healthy development.
For instance, a positive body image has been linked to stronger emotional health with decreased risk for depression and other mental health issues and increases the likelihood of nutritious eating, exercise, self-regulation of eating and weight, sunscreen use and lowers the chance of dieting, developing eating disorders, and abusing drugs and alcohol.
Second, parents need to understand that every single girl — short, tall, round, and thin — is at risk of developing a negative body image and the decreasing health that goes along with it.
And last — and most importantly — is to seek solid advice. We are told not to mention “weight” and be positive role models. But this advice barely skims the surface and keeps us from the thing we need to do most: talk to our girls. I believe parents — and all those who interact with girls– deserve better information.
If you are serious about empowering the girls in your life to grow up healthy, you need to consider the very common pitfalls. In other words, it’s keeping girls from doing certain things that may be the most helpful.
And as luck would have it, or rather, lots of hard work and research, I’ve got 13 of them for you.
1. They Don’t Experience Puberty without Understanding It
Although body dissatisfaction can occur in prepubescent girls, the risk significantly increases during puberty. Research suggests this risk increases, even more, when girls start puberty earlier than their peers.
Girls with a healthy body image understand the changes their bodies are experiencing and have someone they can talk to about it. For example, if they are having a hard time finding clothes that fit right, they may lament to their mom. This is the perfect opening to discuss how it’s normal to gain more weight than they are used to during puberty, especially fat, in preparation for their period. Then, mom can help the girl find clothes she feels comfortable in during this transition.
Without guidance and information, girls may assume these normal gains in body fat mean something’s wrong, and work to stop it by eating less, cutting out foods, etc. Dieting is the last thing girls should be doing because it causes them to disconnect from internal cues of eating and increases the risk of eating disorders. One study found that 57% of 12-17-year-old girls monitor their weights and have made attempts to slim down at least once. And more than half of girls in early adolescence (9-14) wish they were thinner.
2. They Don’t Go Down the Negative Spiral with Social Comparisons
It’s normal for girls to compare themselves to other girls and it’s also how they learn about themselves. Some girls may notice a close friend has a different body shape than them. Or they may compare their quiet selves to a more outgoing, popular girl, wondering if they measure up. They can experience straight-up envy for the material things, or lax rules, their friends get.
Girls with a healthy body image gain a deeper understanding of envy and comparisons. First, they learn envy is inevitable and a normal human experience not to be taken so seriously. Parents can encourage their daughters to consider if the envy they are feeling is trying to tell them something. In particular, a type of social comparison called “enhancement appraisals,” when girls look to improve themselves, can be beneficial.
Parents can offer empathy too, especially about the wants they’re not willing to provide.
“Even when we refuse to stretch our values or family budgets, we can ease our daughter’s discomfort by acknowledging how helpless her envy makes her feel,” writes Lisa Damour, Ph.D., in her book Under Pressure, “We might say for example, ‘It’s natural to want the nice things that other people have. I sometimes feel that way when I see an expensive car. But as an adult, it’s easier for me to stand my envy because I’ve made decisions about my priorities along the way. For now, you’re stuck with the choices we make for you and I know that’s not always so great. Before long, though, you’ll have more say.’”
But if these conversations don’t happen, girls may go to that place of “something’s wrong with me,” which eats away at self-esteem.
3. They Don’t Stay Friends with the Wrong Friends
During puberty, friendships take on more meaning as girls become sensitized to their social world. This a time cliques develop and many girls aim to climb the social ladder.
Although these friend groups make girls feel safe, there can be a cost. Some girls may feel like they need to act a certain way to belong or the leader of the group may one day decide they no longer belong. My recently published book, My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty, helps girls understand the difference between Super Friends and not-so-super friends:
What makes you feel connected to others isn’t fitting in; it’s feeling like you belong. That means you feel valued and loved for who you are. Super Friends accept you as you are, can be trusted, and want you to be happy. On the other hand, friends that make you feel like you need to act a certain way to be accepted or put you down, are not true friends.
Girls with a healthy body image develop and maintain positive peer relationships. They have parents that help them understand what makes a good friend. For example, they feel comfortable going to parents and get coaching on how to navigate the ups and downs of their new social lives. Positive peer relationships allow girls to feel valued for who they are, which research shows, is protective.
See 7 Shifts in Tweens Behavior Every Parent Should Know About
4. They Don’t Stay on the People-Pleasing Train
Adolescence is a time girls develop an identity and sense of self. But it’s easy for girls to tie their identity to approval from others, especially the adults in their lives. In other words, they are much more likely to be people-pleasers than boys. For instance, the girl who gets straight A’s works tirelessly and freaks out at the thought of not making honor roll and disappointing her family. The soccer star gets a boost the games she nails it but worries incessantly before games about her performance.
Although they have the same people-pleasing inclinations, girls with a healthy body image find a way to their own voice and goals. They enjoy positive feedback but are more driven by internal rewards. They have “autonomy-supportive” parents who allow and encourage them to walk their own paths, even when it’s different than what they want. And they remind girls that relying on that stamp of approval comes at a cost to finding and becoming their true selves.
In Under Pressure, Damour encourages parents to give girls a verbal took kit for learning how to say no. “Girls who have varied repertories for saying no are less likely to go along with other people’s wishes or to worry that they will be called names when they turn someone down,” she said. “As parents, we should help our daughter develop a verbal Swiss Army knives that allow them to assert themselves using language that is forceful and direct, or polite and considerate, or whatever else they determine a situation may require.”
But the girl who avoids others’ discomfort at the cost of her own wants and desires, will not develop to her full potential. It should come as no surprise that research reveals that girls with a strong sense of self are more likely to feel good about their bodies.
5. They Don’t Repeatedly Beat Themselves Up
No one is harder on herself than the adolescent girl. She feels like everyone is watching and judging her. Expecting perfection keeps her from feeling judged. This can thwart motivation and leave girls stressed out. It’s no coincidence that they can also be hard on themselves about how their bodies are shaping up.
Girls with a healthy body image find a way to go easier on themselves. They have parents who encourage them to treat themselves as kindly as they treat friends. They remind her that others feel the same way that she does and that no one is perfect. This kindness naturally decreases her stress and motivation. This is self-compassion, and it has been shown to have a positive effect on body image.
“I would tell myself not to worry so much and not to try so hard. You’re a really good person, you’re a very kind person,” said Karen Bluth Ph.D., author of The Self Compassion Workbook for Teens, on what she’d tell her younger self. “You’re strong. Everybody else is going through what you’re going through. And it might not seem that way. It may look like everybody else has it together. But everybody else is struggling just the way you are.”
Girls who don’t learn this risk spending a lifetime beating themselves up instead of giving themselves the kindness that will motivate them to take good care of themselves.
Don’t miss my Podcast Episode with Karen Bluth on Self Compassion
7. They Don’t Feel Pressure to Change Their Body, Especially at Home
Research reveals that when girls feel their body is accepted by others, they are more likely to appreciate their bodies. But if others pressure them about their body — even in nonverbal ways or by talking negatively about theirs or others’ bodies — they are at risk for internalizing those messages and developing a poor body image. The effects are more significant when they come from a family member or someone a girl shares a personal, close relationship with.
“One of the biggest ‘unconscious’ body-shaming messages is talking about your appetite in disparaging ways like ‘I’m so bad, I ate a cupcake today,’ ‘I really shouldn’t but I’m going to anyway,’ and ‘OMG she’s so lucky, she can eat whatever she likes,’ said Emma Wright, Family Body Confidence Consultant. “These kinds of comments send the message that there is something wrong with your appetite – it can’t be trusted and it’s turning your body into a bad one. This sends the message to kids that they too should be wary of what they eat and feel bad about themselves if they don’t adhere to strict food rules, rather than trusting in their own appetite.”
In one study, 4.2% of adolescent girls of parents who never commented on their weight reported using extreme weight control behaviors. That jumped to 23.2 percent in girls whose parents frequently commented on their weight. Additionally, the more mothers talked about their own shape, weight, and size, the more likely their daughter was to experience lower self-worth and symptoms of depression.
Girls with a healthy body image feel their body is accepted by their family members. Their parents exert both direct influence and modeling as shown to be helpful. Direct influence has to do with eating and weight-related comments. They focus on health and well being overweight and good-and-bad foods. Mothers especially model healthy habits and a positive body image and don’t diet or restrict their food intake.
Get Emma Wright’s FREE Bedtime Printable, a 5-minute script before bed to help your child feel good about her body
8. They Don’t Accept or Internalize Weight Bias
Weight stigma or bias is rampant in our society. According to a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Weight stigma refers to the societal devaluation of a person because he or she has overweight or obesity and often includes stereotypes that individuals with obesity are lazy, unmotivated, or lacking in willpower and discipline.” It comes from the misguided belief that shame motivates people to make healthy choices.
Girls with a healthy body image understand this reality but don’t buy into it. Through frequent talks with parents and trusted adults, they know weight bias is wrong and has more to do with the ignorance of others. If they get teased, they don’t assume moral failure on their part or the person getting teased. They don’t internalize these messages. Instead of internalizing, they talk to others about it.
9. They Don’t Run From Difficult Emotions
How girls learn to handle and perceive all emotions plays a role in how they relate to their bodies. In one study, emotional regulation mediated the relationship between body image concerns and symptoms of bulimia and depression. Additionally, high body image concerns were related to emotional avoidance strategies and less frequent positive strategies like acceptance.
Part of the problem is many adults didn’t grow up learning how to manage difficult emotions. In Mothers, Daughters & Body Image, Hillary McBride puts it this way:
…what is becoming even more clear through research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, affective neuroscience, and attachment work is that some of us don’t actually know how to feel hard things. Some of us were never taught. When the social-emotional parts of our brain were being shaped during our early years, and we arrived in a foreign land of sadness, anger, shame, fear, loneliness (insert any other challenging emotion here), we weren’t lovingly shown the path back to a state of restfulness, calm, and ease. So later in life, when the heavy, painful, messy stuff comes up, the experience is literally so overwhelming that the only thing to do is shove it down, push it away, numb it, cut ourselves, or run as fast as possible to the fridge or the liquor.
Girls with a healthy body image feel like home is a place all their emotions are welcome. Parents listen to what girls are feeling and help guide them to what those feelings are trying to tell them. They practice emotion coaching by putting a name on emotions and helping them decide how best to respond. Also, girls learn why their emotions are ramped up during adolescence, a consequence of how their brain is changing.
10. They Don’t Passively Accept the Media They Consume
Most days, girls enter a manmade world with unrealistic images and peers doing fun things. They are told that if they just get this product or buy this outfit, they will get attention, friends, and popularity. This virtual world — social media, videos, YouTube, magazines, movies, advertising — is a problem when girls just accept it without question. In other words, when they internalize the experience they can constantly feel like they don’t measure up
Girls with a healthy body image don’t just passively accept the media images they see, they question it every step of the way. Research suggests this type of media literacy works to help guard against poor body image associated with media. Teach them to critically think by asking questions about what they are viewing. My book, My Body’s Superpower, helps girls understand the difference between the virtual and the real worlds as shown below.
“One of the biggest pitfalls I see is young women comparing themselves to others on social media – and feel deep self hate. It’s super easy for kids to feel inadequate and like they will never match up – and this is exacerbated if the young person feels outside the beauty ideal – bigger, or darker, or taller, or disabled (the list goes on),” said Emma Wright, Body Confidence Consultant. “One of the things parents can do is add a ‘diversity’ rule to social media feeds. This rule can be enforced by saying “while you’re living under our roof, you have to a) let us see your account when we ask and b) follow a diverse range of accounts; Inspiring people who come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, colors, ability, ages, genders, etc.”
Sure enough, research suggests that engagement with appearance-oriented social media accounts is linked to body image concerns but appearance neutral accounts were not.
11. They Don’t Feel Insecure About Their Parents’ Love
There is a link between attachment style and body image issues. Girls that develop an anxious attachment with parents — especially mom — are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction. It is thought that feeling anxious about attachment at home leads girls to focus on other relationships and seek — sometimes in unhealthy ways — the love they feel they are missing.
“When there is enough love, and more than enough love, we tend to learn as people that we can settle, and just be us in life,” said McBride in her book Mothers, Daughters & Body Image. “But when they’re worried that they are loved enough, and try to do things to earn the love, it takes away from what they actually need to do to develop in healthy ways as kids.”
Girls with a healthy body image feel safe and deeply cared for by their families. This sense of safety parents provides boosts their confidence as they venture out into the world. It builds the belief that they are lovable, valued, and important. And when peers don’t treat them well, it feels wrong.
Moms have to work extra hard at this, especially during puberty when girls can act in ways that make us disconnect from them. McBride says, “She needs to know you love her, and even if she’s annoying and frustrating and moody that you will never stop loving her. She needs to know that you will never abandon her, physically or emotionally.”
12. They Don’t Focus Solely on Looks
“You look so pretty,” a young girl is told. She hears this over and over again as she grows up. Girls watch shows that enforce the message that a girls’ self-worth is tied to how she looks. She gets to middle school and sees the popular, pretty, and thin girls get the attention (or maybe she’s one of them). According to “Objectification Theory,” girls can develop an observer’s view of their body and start treating themselves as objects to be looked at.
If they adopt this view, called self-objectification, it increases body shame, appearance anxiety, and decreases motivation which can compromise mental health and well-being.
Girls with a healthy body image do not define themselves based on how they look, they simply see it as one part of who they are. They appreciate their body and understand how their body functions to help them with what they care most about. They are more likely to engage in physical activity and feel the power of their body. Through repeated conversations with parents and trusted adults, girls are reminded of their value beyond looks. It also helps to assist them in finding meaningful, activities and hobbies, and teaching them to use their voice.
“We can stop making appearance-based compliments today. Super powerful and super simple. We can all do this!” said Emma Wright. “We can all decide to make compliments about being pretty cool, or pretty clever, or pretty funny, or pretty awesome or pretty smart, but please, let’s all of us stop complimenting girls (and each other) on simply being pretty.”
I love how Lindsay and Lexie Kite at Beauty Redefined, encourage girls and women to use their body as an instrument, not an ornament.
13. They Don’t Ignore The Messages Their Body Sends
The level of awareness girls have with what is going on inside their body, such as hunger and fullness cues, can have a profound effect on body image, referred to as interoception. According to one review:
The different lines of research that we reviewed here suggest that interoceptive processing and body image concerns may indeed be linked, possibly in a causal way, whereby reduced levels of interoceptive awareness may predispose individuals for greater body-image dissatisfaction in non-clinical populations and the development of eating disorders or the severity of body-image disturbances in clinical populations.Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017
Girls with a healthy body image know how much food they need through their body’s appetite signals. They understand how different patterns of eating affect their body’s functioning. They understand how sleep and activity help them focus, be strong, and do amazing things in the world. They also trust feelings and what they are trying to tell them whether it’s about stress, friends, or what interests them. They use their amazing brains to critically think about all the crazy messages they are sent. They learn to recognize and respond to pressure appropriately so they are less stressed. In short, they learn how to become their truest and healthiest selves by trusting their body.
I hope that now you see why there is a direct line between girls’ body image and health. If you hate your body, how can you trust and listen to what it needs? How can you be fully alive in it? But to accomplish this, girls need guidance from the grownups in their lives. This is not a time to sit back and assume girls are figuring things out.
Here’s my challenge to you. Don’t settle for anything less than raising a daughter who appreciates and is fully alive in her body. This will give her more energy to practice true self-care, solve problems, love fiercely, create, follow her passions, use her unique voice, and be a force for good in the world. A world free of body image issues is the world we want our girls to grow up in. All a poor body image does is move girls away from their bodies, their lives, and themselves.
This is precisely why I wrote My Body’s Superpower: the Girls Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty. It addresses the “don’t do’s” in this post and it’s meant to be shared between trusted female adults and growing girls.
This is really excellent, thank you.
(one little note, you use “cliches” a couple times above where I think it was supposed to be “cliques.”)
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thanks for that!!
#7 and #13 were really striking to me. I grew up obese and lost most of the weight in college, but I definitely felt a lot of guilt when my mom would go on Weight Watchers or any sort of diet, or when she’d exercise with me because I was the one that needed it most. It was really disheartening because I didn’t know what to do… especially when it came to #13. I still struggle with listening to my body in my twenties. I hope that my experiences will help me teach my future kids how to have a healthy relationship with food and their body.
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
I’m sure it will Kara!
Ale Gonzalez says
This is amazing! I grew up not doing all those 13 things and more, still struggle with my body image from time to time and I definitively dont want this to be the same for my daughter. Thank you for such a well written piece; excellent food for thought.
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
I love this article. I have a daughter age 8 who is overweight and I am struggling to learn how to help her!
I’ve recently lost 80 pounds and feel the excitement and transformation of being healthy and taking charge of my body for me. However I do not want to put an eight year old on a diet- we talk openly about weight and health- and I’m afraid I will do it wrong, Cause body image issues and that is the opposite I want to do.
Any resources for helping this situation- helping a young girl who is a out 20 pounds overweight? I do not want her to grow up feeling shamed and not be able to do things I could not? Thank you!!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thanks Jenny. When you say she is overweight…do you mean she has gained weight recently? Or has she always been a bigger size? I think the most helpful resource for that would be my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater. It provides 8 important principles for optimizing food regulation which will help her be at a weight that is right for her. Research shows that focusing on weight is not the way to go but learning what helps her regulate food intake such as sleep, planned meals, sensibly fitting in sweets, managing stress etc can be helpful. Especially given she is going to start puberty. My other book, My Body’s Superpower will be great for her when she starts puberty. Good luck!
Jenny Walton says
Thank you so much for your response.
Until the age of seven she was a very healthy weight. In the last year she has put on twenty pounds. It is sudden and quick.
I am trying to find a way to change this without having her become worried about her appearance and make body image an issue for her. I want her to be healthy and feel empowered however she is too overweight currently. She has asked me once privately to help her.
I will buy both of your books and read them- there is just so many different ways I read to handle the actual issue. She just loves eating and eats too much so I need to focus on how to help her as a parent in a positive and mindful way.
And I’m just learning these rules myself. 🙂
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
It is possible she’s started puberty which results in increased appetite and weight gain, especially fat. Something to consider. I also do online coaching if you’re interested.