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Parenting

Raising a Girl with a Positive Body Image

Girls Playing SoccerParents 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.


  • Dee

    I found the article patronizing. My daughter homeschooled K-12 and is a senior at our state college. She’s a top student and has many friends and a job. I am a product of public schools and was very disappointed in the one-size-fits-all education system. There is also nothing wrong with homeschooling because of moral beliefs. In this age of iPhones, Facebook, etc., it is impossible for students not to be exposed to multiple opposing viewpoints.

  • Emily

    I came across this article via Sally’s Babies (http://sallysbabies.com/how-to-raise-a-round-up/). You offer excellent advice here.

    I just wanted to add that as mothers, we should be very careful not to talk badly about our own bodies in front of our children. Our children are watching everything that we do, even if it doesn’t seem that way, and often times, a mother who is unhappy with her own body image may not think twice before criticizing her own “muffin top” or “double chin” in front of her daughter.

  • Stacey

    I think you’re right about communicating with your daughters about body image to make sure they have a realistic perception about how women really look like as opposed to they way they may be portrayed in the media. http://www.spamedica.com

  • samantha

    i have my own fears that my younger sister is struggling with her body image due to my own struggles with an eating disorder. i’ve had discussions with her about the importance of neutrality in her clothing and interests, and have actually had good conversations come of it. little girls are so fragile! it’s nice to hear that someone else shares the same tactics as i do! i recently wrote my own blog post about this issue and referenced yours! anyone can feel free to check it out at novalesque.blogspot.com

  • Alex

    Agreed.

    Good article. We are thinking about sending the kids back for jr high. I worry about the transition, but know jr high is an adjustment for everyone.

  • Lindsey

    I was homeschooled and now have a bachelors of science in biology. I first obtained my GED and then took the entrance (asset) test at the college. It was not a hard process. Though I obtained my GED you can get a state issued high school diploma for homeschooled kids in some states. This will suffice for college enrollment.

  • Jason Mink

    Orlando, applying for college will not be that hard, but it is my understanding that qualifying for scholarships the first year is very difficult, so you may want to look at that aspect.

  • CyberchaseLover

    Check out Lee Binz, The Homescholar. She has a lot of excellent resources relating college and high school.
    Also, If kids don’t have to go to school, why do they have to go to college again?
    I mean, I get it it, they have to go to college to get a job.
    But the book “College Unbound” by Jeffery J. Selingo is worth checking out, just to understand the other side’s point of view.
    It really made me think about whether I want to go to college. I might just be a small business person… Or I could be something else. I haven’t decided yet. I don’t have to just yet. I’m only 14!

  • HS Mom for Fifteen Years

    There are MANY homeschooled kids who go to college. Colleges understand that for homeschoolers grades tend to carry less meaning because parents award them, so they look to SAT or ACT scores (makes sure your child takes these in 11th or early 12th grade) and other independent evidences of accomplishment. Being very involved in academic activities (and actually winning) makes your children more desirable to colleges. Consider something like debate (google homeschool debate to find a league and local group in your area), and entering competitions such as The National Peace Essay or the Ayn Rand Essay competitions. Research this online or at a bookstore. It can and is being done!

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