You hope negative body image won’t be an issue until a girl reaches puberty. Sadly, girls as young as three, now show signs of negative body image! This is why it’s crucial to purposefully build positive body image for your daughter starting as young as possible. How she feels about her body is a crucial part of a girl’s sense of who she is as she gets older. Below are some typical issues that come up at various ages. Remember that with popular culture pressure, girls will often face these challenges at younger ages than described below. But the things you can do to help are the same, no matter her age.
1-7 years old
Four year old Grace and her Dad are visiting relatives who don’t see Grace very often and want to compliment her. One calls her “a heart stealer” and warns Dad he’ll have to “watch out for those boys,” while another comments on her “cute figure” and how lucky it is Grace “didn’t get the family thunder thighs.” Grace looks down at the floor, embarrassed, and tries to hide behind Dad. Dad feels vaguely uncomfortable but doesn’t know quite why or how to respond.
8-13 years old
Eleven year old Katie is average height and weight, and she’s started adding noticeable body fat as she grows from girl to woman. When shopping for a bathing suit, it’s obvious that Katie’s miserable, even though Mom thinks she looks cute in every suit and tells her so. Mom’s mystified since clothes shopping has always been one of their favorite activities. Back home, Dad asks to see the new suit. Katie says nothing and storms off to her room. Dad says, “What did I do?” Mom says, “It was a disaster.”
14 and up
Keisha tries on a strapless style when shopping for a prom dress. She’s small-breasted and the bodice is loose. As soon as Mom suggests a different dress, Keisha gets upset, asking “Why am I so flat? I need a padded push-up bra.” Shocked, Mom says, “You’re barely fifteen. No daughter of mine is going to look like a slut.”
Things to Consider about Girls’ Development
Girls face huge pressures about body image starting at a very young age. At puberty, even more pressures hit just as her body starts to naturally change and add fat. Bombarded with unrealistic, “perfect” images in movies, TV and advertising, almost every girl has serious trouble feeling good, or even okay, about her body.
Many images show girls and women in a hyper-sexualized way, putting emphasis on “sexy” body parts like breasts and buttocks. No wonder problems with body image are appearing at younger and younger ages. Plastic surgery among teen girls increased alarmingly in the past five years, a sign that parents are allowing and encouraging it. Girls with physical disabilities face additional body image struggles and discrimination or bullying about how they look.
Every girl needs to know her own strengths, the goodness of how her body works, and how it helps her fulfill her dreams. Feeling good about her body is a great boost to her confidence. Parents and other significant adults in a girl’s life have the greatest influence on her body image.
You can help your girl develop and maintain a strong body image no matter what her natural body shape is and you can you help her fight the inevitable struggles every girl has with her body. Both Moms and Dads have special roles to play: Mom in how she relates to and talks about her own body, Dad in how he talks about women’s and girls’ bodies (not as sex objects). Both parents must confront and oppose the presentation of girls and women as sex objects, explaining why it’s harmful.
What to Say and Do
1-7 years old
Regularly praise your own body and your daughter’s body for what it does, not how it looks.
- You are so strong.
- You can kick the soccer ball very straight.
- I feel so good after taking a hike.
Reassure her that she is uniquely beautiful. Sincerely praise things others might call imperfections.
- I love that birthmark on your shoulder – no one else has it.
- Your frizzy hair is so full of energy!
Help her learn to use her body in sports or dance or play, getting joy from its capabilities.
- You sure love to ride your bike.
- Can you teach me that new tae kwon do kick?
Notice when she feels good about her body, create more of those experiences and remind her of them.
- Look at this picture of you dancing when you were little–you look so happy.
- Your whole body concentrates when you’re playing the drums.
Encourage conversation about negative body image messages, even making fun of them.
- It sure would be great if being taller would solve all our problems!
- It’s ridiculous to see such perfect air-brushed photos in magazines. They look so fake.
14 and up
Help her identify contradictions and harmful stereotypes that feed negative body image.
- Isn’t it strange that fat people are automatically assumed to be lazy?
- Do you think large-breasted women are happier than small-breasted ones?
Encourage her to be active in any activity where her body’s usefulness is not determined by how it looks.
Comment regularly about body shape being determined by genetics. If she’s not your biological daughter take that into consideration and find creative ways to work with it.
- Look how much alike you and I were at fifteen years old.
- I have a round belly just like my mom and Granny.
Let her express her frustrations about negative body image by listening more than you comment.
- Tell me what bugs you about that.
Words, Phrases and Actions to Use
- If anyone makes negative body image or sexual comments about her body, say: I don’t want you to talk about my daughter like that.
- It runs in our family
- I love your…..
What NOT to Say and Do
Don’t make negative comments about anyone’s body, especially your own or hers.
- Look how his arm is jiggling–gross!
- If only I had a smaller waist, I’d look better in clothes.
Don’t ignore or downplay it when she feels insecure about her body.
- Don’t worry about it.
- You’ll grow out of it.
Don’t avoid talking about negative body image–she might think there’s something wrong with her.
Just offering clichés, without backing them up by your own actions won’t help her feel good.
- Looks aren’t really important.
- All that matters is what’s inside.
Words, Phrases and Actions to Avoid
Never make sexually suggestive comments about her body, even if you think they’re compliments.
How to Say it to Girls: Communicating with your Growing Daughter by Nancy Gruver
101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body by Brenda Richardson and Elaine Rehr
Real Gorgeous: The Truth about Body and Beauty by Kaz Cooke