Body image and girls… It’s a public health issue.
You can see it happen in young girls. They used to rush past a mirror without a second look and now they spend an hour in front of it “getting ready”. You can almost see the change in their attitudes too—what used to be a tool to make sure they didn’t have food on their face has now become a way to examine and scrutinize every aspect of their appearance.
Some would say this body consciousness begins much earlier than puberty, but being conscious of your body and being hyper-aware of it are quite different.
Body consciousness takes a different turn as a girl notices the changes her body is going through. And with this growing awareness, too often, comes a growing dissatisfaction.
While many parents do a good job of providing their daughters with many different types of female role models, the ones girls see at the youngest ages remain princesses. And while there’s nothing wrong with princesses, they all have some very important things in common: they are all often unattainably thin and exceptionally beautiful.
What does poor body image do to a woman’s emotional health?
Where it starts
A study from BMC Public Health found that girls as young as 10 and 11 already have an idea of what they consider to be the “perfect body.” And perhaps not surprisingly, for girls, the better body is always the thinner body.
Unlike boys, who they found preferred a weight that wasn’t too thin or too fat, girls in the “Body satisfaction and body weight study” held the belief that thinner is always better.
As a matter of fact, for each one unit increase in their BMI (Body Mass Index) measurement, girls had about an 8 percent increase in body image dissatisfaction.
Overall, among 10- and 11-year-old girls, researchers found 7.3 percent were dissatisfied in how they looked. Even among those with “normal weight,” 5.7 were unhappy with their body image.
There’s little doubt that these numbers would be even higher if the sample studied was older girls. But researchers at Florida State University revealed that parents are forcing ideal body image standards onto children as young as three—encouraging boy toddlers to eat more than girl toddlers with the same body mass.
Emotional health and early bonds
The connection between a girl and her mother is particularly important when determining how she will feel about herself. Because a girl’s mother is her first and perhaps strongest female role model, she looks to her mother for support and for guidance. She models her mother’s actions.
How a girl perceives her mother’s opinion of her weight will dramatically impact how she feels about her appearance, causing her to diet if she thinks her mother views her as being overweight.
In other words: it starts early and continues through adolescence. We can’t only blame the media (though media influence is undeniable), but also must take some responsibility ourselves for the discomfort girls feel when they look at themselves in the mirror.
Why should we care? Health problems from poor body image
Girls who feel bad about themselves are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviors, are more likely to be depressed, and more likely to attempt suicide.
One-third of all adolescents have “problematic” body image concerns. Research has shown that these young people have higher incidents of depression and anxiety, and a higher risk of suicide than other children in inpatient mental health centers.
What can be done?
We live in a world that is totally preoccupied with appearance. “Attractive” women are treated better from the classroom to the workplace.
Fighting negative body image ideals is an uphill battle. Even grown women are estimated to have 13 negative body thoughts on a daily basis. From “your body is gross,” to “you disgust me,” women berate themselves about once every hour they are awake. Counteracting this in the youngest girls may seem difficult, but it can’t be impossible.
Teaching girls that there is no one standard of beauty is a huge start.
By limiting their exposure to mainstream media and glossy (airbrushed) magazines, we can make a dent in what they see as a “real woman.”
Redefining beautiful to not only include tall, thin women with long flowing hair can widen their own definition of “ideal”, potentially giving them room to fit an image of themselves within that definition.
Many of our own beliefs about beauty are projected on the young girls around us without us even being conscious of it. Who do you say is “beautiful” when your daughter is around? How do you look at yourself in the mirror when she watches you put on your makeup? Do you practice what you preach—loving your body through a positive relationship with food and exercise, and including positive self-talk?
Young girls model the women they are most frequently around. They are also aware of how the men they are most frequently around talk about and look at women. As adults hoping to lead the younger generation toward a life of success and fulfillment, we must recognize our roles as true leaders and give them something worth following. It’s a health issue.