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"Most girls and boys present information about themselves in dramatically different ways. When girls in middle school are asked to list ten things they like about themselves, more than 50 percent will list physical and social attributes: 'my hair, my legs,' or 'I'm a good friend.' But boys will say, 'I'm fast' or 'I'm strong.' Middle-school girl friendships are often based more on looks than personality and shared interests, which causes many girls enormous pain. The social piece is influenced by the body piece because sometimes if you don't look the part, you can't join the group."
Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D.
Lisa Sjostrom, Ed.M.
Co-authors of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership
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. Alarming statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Association of Eating Disorders report that ten out of every hundred American girls have an eating disorder; more than 50 percent of today's teenage girls are on diets and use unhealthy means to control their weight; and 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner. Forty percent of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15 to 19 years old.
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.
"The problem begins with our culture and its over-the-top obsession with body image," comments Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, co-author of Full of Ourselves -- A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health, and Leadership, and a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School. "You can't talk about a girl's sense of herself without talking about her body image. By the age of six, girls are beginning to think of themselves both as a person and a body, and many six-year-olds are aware that when they walk into a room, how they look is an important statement about who they are." As early as third grade, Steiner-Adair notes, some girls are conducting an internalized body-checking dialogue with themselves, thinking, for instance, "That girl's hair is better than mine." "By middle school," Steiner-Adair says, "for the vast majority of girls, who they are and what they look like is inextricably intertwined." In her book, Steiner-Adair describes how many girls literally "weigh their self-esteem. This focus on bodies as a primary source of identity predisposes girls to disordered thinking and disordered eating, which can escalate into a full-blown eating disorder." Disordered eating (skipping meals, dieting or eating mainly junk food) prevents a girl from getting the nourishment she needs to think and learn well.
Fortunately, there are many things parents can do to help their girls develop healthy eating and exercise habits and to help them evaluate the body images they see in the media. This article presents some pointers to help you and your daughter develop a healthy sense of who she is and who she may become.
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.