Body image concerns for girls don’t typically start appearing in high school; it’s often grade school when the angst begins. It can begin with an offhand comment from a friend or parent, and almost always involves girls looking outside of themselves for their sense of worth. The cost is tremendous anxiety, self-hatred, and discontent. Let me share some stories of real girls whose names I have changed to protect their confidentiality.
Meg was in the first grade when she noticed how her best friend was much thinner than her. She started believing she was fat, and from that day forward avoided wearing two-piece swimsuits.
Angela started puberty in 4th grade, and anxiously noticed her weight gain and curvier figure compared to peers. She diagnosed herself as overweight and ugly, and thus began years of dieting and self-loathing.
Shanti broke her foot at the beginning of the summer requiring her to wear a cast. She got depressed from missing out on her club soccer team and pool parties, and lost 20 pounds. At the start of 8th grade she received a lot of compliments about how good she looked from girls and guys. This external approval motivated her to lose even more weight, precipitating a slide into an eating disorder.
Ray heard all the body shaming amongst her 6th grade dance team, and especially from girls who were petit and thin. Her thighs were muscular from playing other sports, and so she figured if these twigs think they’re fat, then I must really be overweight. Ray has been obsessed with her weight and thighs ever since.
In 27 years of sitting in circles listening to girls share, I have heard story after story of when and why their body dissatisfaction began. A few themes run through the stories, and these can sensitize you to where your daughter might be suffering. One is comparing themselves negatively to their peers, an even more powerful influence than the media. Another theme is early puberty: the first girls to get curves often judge themselves as different, fat, and unbecoming. Critical comments from mothers directed towards her daughter or towards herself are another common source of discontent. Girls take these words to heart. When a petit mom talks bad about her body, girls with burgeoning curves who think their mom is beautiful start saying to themselves, “If mom thinks she’s fat, and I’m heavier than she is, then I must be a blimp!”
We’ve got to teach girls the cost of looking to others for validation. They will always find someone who is in their minds prettier, thinner, sexier, and more attractive, and thus will never be satisfied with their appearance. Girls need education about the normal weight and body changes during puberty. Parents and especially moms need to be sensitive about what they say about themselves and their daughter when it comes to appearance. Eliminate any disparaging comments, and talk about your body more in terms of function than looks.
We need to be on top of this issue before girls start making harmful decisions about their bodies.
Here a 2 links to previous blogs I wrote on body image: