Girls and Body Image

Remember Emme Aronson—better known as just "Emme"—America's first plus-sized model? As a preteen, Aronson recalls, her stepfather circled her thighs with a magic marker and drew on her stomach to show her where he thought she needed to lose weight. “I remember feeling ashamed and totally defective," says Aronson, the founder of women's online forum EmmeNation. "I knew that my stepfather was crossing boundaries, and yet I wanted to be accepted."

Emme's case was extreme. But in fact, it takes far less than that to make a little girl feel self-conscious about her body. Studies conducted by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists show that almost 54 percent of American girls and women ages 12 to 23 years are unhappy with their bodies. When do these feelings start? Surprisingly, a lot earlier than most of us would think.

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"Even preschool girls start to realize the ‘fat is bad and skinny is good’ message. They pick it up early on, and although they may not know why or what it’s about, they understand that there is a reaction when it comes to weight,” says Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist, and author of the book Good Girls Don’t Get Fat. "They might overhear their teacher remark to another teacher about how her jeans are fitting that day, and those things are absorbed by kids as young as 3 to 5: Thin is good, fat is bad.”

"Girls often look to their father to find out if they are worthy, if they are beautiful."

Since these feelings can start so early, parents need to pay special attention. As mothers, we might be trying hard not to pass our insecurities on to our daughters, but “even that grimace that you make when you are looking at your body in the mirror speaks volumes to a young girl,” says Silverman. "This is especially sad because you are dealing with young people who are supposed to be gaining weight.”

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Fathers also have a profound impact on a daughter’s self-esteem, as Emme's story attests. “The father is the first male figure in a young woman’s life, and he is the template for how men should treat her," Silverman says. “Girls often look to their father to find out if they are worthy, if they are beautiful. Dad may exclaim, ‘Look at these chubby legs’ with affection, but what the girl then does is start a laundry list of things that are wrong with her.”

The tween age is a very delicate time for body image. Not only are young girls coming into their own with their identities, but also, says Silverman, “their bodies are changing left, right and sideways, and it’s very typical for a girl to gain about 25 pounds during puberty. They put on weight and shoot up, often. Parents sometimes worry about those pounds, but then in six months, that girl sprouts up and the weight distributes."

It's about being healthy. One of the first ways to build strong self-esteem in tween girls is to make it more about being healthy, not about weight. “Discuss and serve high-nutrient foods that give you energy," Aronson says. "When a kid sees a parent eating too many high-fat foods and not taking care of their bodies, the kid will do the same thing.”

It is also crucial to set a good standard because when our kids are at school, and out of our care, we have less control. By giving them a healthier path, they are less likely to stray far from their norm. “Everyone in the family needs to be healthy, both the thinner child and the heavier child, by getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, drinking water, blowing off stress in productive ways and getting exercise; this is how we are healthy," Silverman says.

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Media and its message. Promoting a healthy lifestyle is important because kids need all the help they can get when confronted by the media and all the confusing messages that it sends. Julia Bluhm, an 8th grader, has received a lot of attention for starting a petition against Seventeen magazine for their use of Photoshop on models.

“Pop culture and magazines have a huge influence on teens," Bluhm says. "We are exposed to it all the time. Even if you never open a magazine, you still see the covers in stores. You still see billboards and ads in clothing stores and TV commercials," says Bluhm, who blogs for Spark Movement, an activist organization working to end the sexualization of women and girls in media. “I always kind of noticed how girls in magazines were really 'perfect,' but I thought they were just naturally really pretty, and that magazines only chose pretty girls like them."

"Girls strive to be like these images," she adds, "but what they don’t know is that it’s impossible to achieve that 'perfection' without computer editing."

Silverman stresses the value of media literacy from an early age, “Teach your kids to be media watchdogs. Sit with them, watch their cartoons, the commercials, the movies, and talk about the stuff you see."

What parents can do. Bluhm concurs. “Parents can have a big effect on how girls view these images in the media, especially when you start from a young age."

It's important to be there for our girls, Silverman says, and give them as much support as we can: “Place an importance on intelligence, their connections with people and their other great qualities; don’t just make it about beauty. Tell them, ‘You have such knack for numbers,’ or, ‘You have such a great command on your soccer team. You’re a great leader.'"

"And be sure to talk about the great things we do as mothers," she adds. "Let them see us praise our achievements so that they will feel free to do the same and own their own strengths."

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