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.”
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.”