Parents of girls face a challenge today: How do they raise their daughters to feel good about their bodies without falling into the eating disorder trap?
The facts are disturbing. Nearly half of the nation’s girls are unhappy with their bodies. An obsession with thinness is affecting not only high-school girls, but also their younger sisters. According to the Center for Disease Control and National Association of Eating Disorders, by age 6 girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. Additionally, around half of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.
However, there is also some good news. Girls are playing sports more, dancing more and studying martial arts — and these activities can help them develop assertiveness and healthy relationships with their bodies. But parents remain rightfully concerned for their girls. Even if your family follows healthy eating and exercise habits, there are still many societal pressures influencing girls today.
Catherine Steiner-Adair works with girls and parents in her private practice and speaks about body image and eating disorders in workshops around the country. She recommends the following strategies and talking points to help girls develop positive body images and healthy eating and exercise habits — and to help them not succumb to images promoted by the culture and adopted by their best friends.
Pink or blue? Think about the messages you are giving your daughter.
According to Steiner-Adair, the overemphasis on girls’ appearance begins at babyhood. “As soon as a baby is dressed in pink or blue, the world responds differently to that baby, as there are gender-based expectations on how girls should behave and what should interest them. Adults respond so much to what a girl looks like that by age five or six, young girls are getting the notion that their body is their selling point. When body image, clothes, marketing for girls is so sexual, it is that much harder for girls to develop a healthy, non-sexualized relationship with their bodies.”
Talk about who your daughter is instead of how she looks.
Steiner-Adair recommends that we compliment girls on qualities other than looks. “Parents so often say ‘You look so pretty today,’ but don’t say things like, ‘You were such a good friend today,’ or ‘You handled that frustration well.’ It’s very useful to compliment girls on their assertiveness and even their anger with statements like, ‘You were brave to tell me how mad you were,’ ‘I like how you stand up for yourself,’ ‘You and I disagree and I respect your thinking,’ or ‘I never would have thought of that; you are so smart about these things.’”
Talk about what women look like in the media.
Girls’ images of themselves are shaped by what they see around them, by brand names in magazines, and in particular, by TV shows that focus more on what women wear and how their bodies look than on what they can do. Steiner-Adair recommends parents limit, but not ban, girls’ exposure to television and particularly commercials. Talk with girls about what they see to balance the effects of these images. It’s never too early to begin this conversation. “By the age of two, kids are aware of brand names, so think of what the images selling those brands may be doing to them.”
Make clothes choices that protect their girlhood.
Avoid buying clothes for preschool, elementary-school, and middle-school girls that make them look like sexy teenagers, advises Steiner-Adair. “We are living in a time when there are undies for five-year-olds that say ‘Juicy Girl’ or ‘Not on a School Night.’ Little girls don’t need to wear thongs that say ‘Eye Candy’ or any clothes that promote a ‘sexy chic.’ They are just too young to understand this. These products call attention to sexuality, which gets in the way of girls experiencing their bodies as children.”
This article contains information to help girls develop positive body images, but it does not contain advice on dealing with eating disorders. Experts recommend that if you have any reason to believe that your daughter is becoming obsessed with dieting or is binging and purging, talk to your doctor immediately.