Healthy body image: Tips for guiding girls

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Healthy body image: Tips for guiding girls

Girls today face significant pressure to be physically attractive and have a perfect body. As a result, many girls feel dissatisfied with their bodies and are at higher risk of developing mental health problems. There are steps you can take, however, to encourage your daughter to love her body, regardless of its shape or size. Find out what you can do to help girls develop and maintain a healthy body image.

Causes of a negative body image

Maintaining a healthy body image during adolescence is often difficult for girls. Factors that may harm a girl's body image include:

  • Having a mother who's overly concerned about her own weight or her daughter's weight or appearance
  • Natural weight gain and other changes caused by puberty
  • Peer pressure to look a certain way
  • Media images that promote the ideal female body as thin
  • Being teased about her weight

Consequences of a negative body image

If your daughter doesn't feel she lives up to the ideal body image promoted by friends, family and the media, she may begin to feel inadequate and ashamed of her body — even if she's not overweight. Girls who feel dissatisfied with their bodies are at higher risk of developing mental health problems, including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders

Having a negative body image also may lead to skipping meals or a cycle of dieting, losing weight and regaining weight — which can further harm self-esteem. A negative body image may even result in a desire for cosmetic surgery. Some research suggests a link between body dissatisfaction among girls and cigarette smoking, possibly because girls may believe that smoking will help them control their weight. Having a negative body image also may affect a girl's comfort with her sexuality as she grows.

Talking about body image

Talking about body image with your daughter can help her become comfortable with her body shape and relate to food in a healthy way. When you discuss body image, you might:

  • Explain the effects of puberty and genetics. Make sure your daughter understands that weight gain is a normal part of her development, especially during puberty. Explain that body shape also is largely influenced by genetic factors.
  • Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies, music videos, Web sites, magazines and even some children's toys may send your daughter the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Check out what your daughter is reading or watching and discuss it with her. Encourage her to talk about and question what she's seen or heard.
  • Discuss self-image. Talk to your daughter about her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Ask her what she likes about herself and explain what you like about her, too. Your acceptance and respect can help her build self-esteem and resilience.
  • Use positive language. Rather than talking about "fat" and "thin," encourage your daughter to focus on maintaining a healthy weight by eating right and staying active. Encourage family and friends to refrain from using hurtful nicknames and joking about people who are overweight or have a large body frame.

Make sure your daughter knows that she can always come to you with questions or concerns about her body or self-image.

Other strategies

In addition to talking to your daughter, consider other strategies to promote a healthy body image:

  • Team up with your family doctor. Your family doctor can help your daughter set realistic goals for body mass index and weight based on her personal weight history and overall health. The doctor can also help identify early indicators of an eating disorder by asking questions about your daughter's eating habits and satisfaction with her appearance during routine medical appointments.
  • Help establish healthy-eating habits. Offer healthy meals and snacks, but be careful to let your daughter make choices about the food she eats.
  • Counter negative media messages. You may not be able to shield your daughter from media images that promote an idealized image of women's bodies. You can, however, show her books, articles and movies about women who are famous for their achievements — not their appearance. For example, consider giving your daughter a subscription to a news magazine instead of a fashion magazine.
  • Encourage a positive school environment. Support school policies that aim to stop size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing and name-calling.
  • Praise achievements. Help your daughter value what she does, rather than what she looks like. Look for opportunities to praise her efforts, skills and achievements.
  • Encourage physical activity. Participating in sports and other physical activities can help promote good self-esteem and a positive body image. Consider encouraging activities that don't emphasize the importance of weight or value leanness.
  • Set a good example. Explain to your daughter that you eat a healthy diet and exercise for your health — not just to look a certain way. Also, think about what you read and watch as well as the products you buy and the lessons your choices send.

When to see a doctor

Developing and maintaining a healthy body image isn't an easy task for girls. If your daughter is struggling with a negative body image, consider professional counseling. Additional support may give your daughter the tools she needs to counter social pressure and feel good about her body.

Last Updated: 2010-06-05
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