Here are two emails I recently received which share parents’ concerns about their daughter’s body image.
Hello Michelle, Love your blog and have your book, thank you. I have an adorable 12 year old daughter and she is starting to have doubts about her appearance just as she leaves for school in the mornings or outings with friends. She says she looks “fat”, hair is ugly etc and none of these things are true at all. As her mother, how can I best support/respond to these sometimes worrying statements?
I have daughter and she is 15 years of age. She constantly wants to eat, then feels guilty when she does. I find a lot of the teenagers seem to want to have a perfect body. I don’t know if I should take her to a psychologist or is it a phase? I’m not trying to make a big deal about it nor am I wanting to ignore it. She’s a beautiful girl, not overweight.
What Is Body Image
Body image is how you think and feel about your body and what you imagine that it looks like. It may or may not be a reflection of your actual appearance. Poor body image affects young people in so many ways – eating disorders, depression, social anxiety and low self-esteem are just a few.
Having walked a hard road of self-doubt themselves, most mothers want to install confidence in their girls. They want their girls to discover how beautiful they are, before their youth disappears. Here are eight thoughts which will help you do just that.
Body image issues are not limited to age or gender. Up to 88% of girls and 83% of boys admit to being dissatisfied with one or more aspects of their body. According to new research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), children are expressing dissatisfaction with their body size as early as 8-9 years old and the majority of 10-11 years old are trying to control their weight.
However, girls have a slightly different experience, and have different “risk factors” to be aware of:
- Girls’ appearance is more important for gaining acceptance by peers. Sadly, beauty is a trump card for girls.
- Girls have a stronger internalisation of appearance ideals (personal beauty standards to strive for).
- The way girls use technology exposes them to more appearance ideals than boys. Technology will – by default, put our girls in the way of more appearance ideals.
- Puberty impacts timing of body dissatisfaction. In girls, body dissatisfaction increases significantly between middle school and high school, while it remains relatively stable in the transition from high school to early young adulthood. In boys, an opposite pattern seems to exist as older adolescents experience a relative increase in body dissatisfaction, while younger adolescent boys report no significant change in body dissatisfaction.
- Girls experience a greater BMI change / increase throughout adolescence and therefore may be more prone to feeling body dissatisfaction and dieting earlier.
- Girls report earlier and more consistent dieting than boys, while boys dieting fluctuates.
- Girls often see beauty as something only a few can obtain – it’s scarce. When our girls live with a deficit mentality they believe there is only room for a few at the top. This drives competition, jealousy, insecurity and fear in relationships.
- The beauty industry is toxic for our girls, and it plays on their fear of not being enough. While female empowerment messages have their place, they can also lead girls to feeling inadequate.
Given all this, how can we help our girls embrace their beauty?
1. Remember that puberty brings self-criticism, self-consciousness and moodiness with it. Listen to your daughter’s body image concerns about her body shape without shutting her down by saying, “Don’t be ridiculous”. Puberty can be a worrying time and body image concerns are starting younger than many parents anticipate it.
2. Research is clear that when it comes to body image, parents are the most influential person in their child’s life. Eat well, take care of yourself and most importantly – enjoy your life including food. Realise that your language will make an impact so try talking about foods in terms of their health benefits. Instead of labelling food good or bad, try using the terms sometimes foods and often foods. Be careful how you speak about other’s appearances. Terms like “fat” or “ugly” are triggers of shame.
3. Deliberately praise your daughter for her internal qualities, and limit defining her by her appearance. You want her to know how strong, courageous, confident or intelligent she is. Every girl deserves a home where her appearance does not define her.
4. Remember beauty is not the enemy. It brings joy to the world when it is an expression of what is within. It is how our girls define beauty which can be toxic. Beauty is something that no one else should be given the power to define on behalf of our girls, and it should be something attainable.
5. Encourage your daughter to manage her newsfeed so it empowers her rather than fills her mind with toxic and unhelpful messages and images.
6. The majority of young women struggling with their body image also struggle with solving other problems in life. This is where they need practical strategies and tools to overcome life’s issues. Example: If young people don’t have problem solving skills they may stop eating when they get stressed, feel fat or depressed, as a way of coping.
7. Reward your daughter for being assertive, without being aggressive. Teach her to say ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ in real life will help her take care of herself in every area. She will need to be able to say “no” to distorted thoughts to grow a healthy body image.
8. Everyday education around diet, exercise, health, style, shopping and sexuality are all linked to healthy mindsets about body image. Body If your daughter’s eating habits are really worrying talk to your doctor, a dietician or psychologist.
RECOMMENDED READING: You can find more on this topic in my book ‘Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help”