A Parent's Guide To Girls And Body Image

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Girls and Body Image – A Guide for Parents

“Ewww…your arms are so hairy.”

~boy at school

I was 12. Those six little words impacted me for the better part of the next 20 years. It changed how I saw myself. I realized that something about my physical appearance was different – wasn’t “normal” – and that other people were noticing.

You see, I’m blessed with a head of thick, dark, wavy hair that most women would die for – and now, many years later, I’m very thankful for that. But I also have thick dark hair on other parts of my body, including my arms, legs, and face. Without tweezers I’d have a unibrow that would put Sesame Street’s Bert to shame.

My hairiness caused a significant amount of distress for me as a teenage girl. This certainly wasn’t the only “incident” that threatened my fragile self-esteem as a young woman, but it’s definitely one of the times I remember most. And the effects were long-lasting.

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All girls are at risk for poor body image

Parenting is hard.

Few things are more heartbreaking than hearing your pre-teen or teenage girl say “I hate my body”, or “ugh, I’m so fat”, or, worse, engage in destructive behaviors or withdrawing from friends, family, and social activities.

Our girls are under intense pressure to fit in and conform to a certain standard of beauty. Boys are too, but girls appear to be more affected. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that girls are statistically more likely to attempt diets and exhibit disordered eating behaviors.

Parents need to understand that poor body image isn’t something that happens only to the “big girls” or those with thick-rimmed glasses and acne. All girls – tall, short, stocky, round, thin, tan, pale, freckled, acne-prone, or hairy – are at risk of developing a negative body image!

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Girls and body image: A parent’s role

I’m no expert in fixing body image issues, especially in young girls. I can only draw from my extensive studies on the topic and my own personal experience.

What I do know is the more I touch on the topic of body image and non-diet approaches to wellness for adult women, the more I seem to come into contact with parents who are seeking help for their young daughters.

This is heartbreaking to me. Body, beauty, and weight are extremely sensitive subjects for young girls, and need to be approached with extreme care.

We want to protect our girls. We want to help them fit in. But it seems that parents fall into one of two camps: they don’t know what to do, so they do nothing, or they get pushy and make the problem worse.

How do we help our girls without seeming uncaring or overbearing?

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Empower yourself and your girls to fight negative body image!

Talk to her about body image…and all the things.

Don’t wait! Statistics show that half of pre-adolescent girls (ages 9-14) are unhappy with their bodies!

It doesn’t help that many girls simply don’t understand the changes that are taking place within their bodies. They don’t understand why their clothes suddenly don’t fit. They don’t know that it’s normal to sometimes feel moody, angry, or sad.

We need to start talking to our girls early…before they learn it from social media, magazines, or the kids on the bus. Our girls deserve to know what to expect during puberty. We need to tell them that their bodies (and the changes that will occur) are normal.

We also need to be straight up with our girls about the world we live in. They need to know that most people are good at heart, but there will always be mean people — at school, at work — wherever they go. They should know that the images they see in magazines are airbrushed and don’t represent reality. We need to remind them (and ourselves) that the things their friends and celebrities post on social media are usually carefully chosen snapshots of life, and rarely tell the full story.

Girls with a healthy body image understand the changes that are taking place in their bodies, understand that these changes are normal, know the difference between media and real life, and have someone to talk to about all these issues.

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Empower your girl to stand up for herself.

We are great at teaching our girls to be friendly and non-confrontational. I think it’s good and necessary that we teach kindness, acceptance, and understanding…but we should also teach girls that they don’t have to take anyone else’s shit.

You are an adult. Imagine if someone came up to you and began making fun of your body, or told you that you’re a fat cow. What would you do? Would you stand for it? Aside from the initial and unhelpful knee-jerk response that probably includes a few choice four-letter words, we all know that the best way to react to this situation is to address, diffuse, and exit.

Here’s an example that adds in a bit of sarcasm, which would probably work well in the world of pre-teens and teenagers:

Mean boy: Look at those hairy arms! Is your mom a monkey or something?

Girl: Wow. Aren’t you just so observant? Thank you for bringing this to my attention…I seriously had no clue that I have dark hair on my arms. I’ll try to change my Italian heritage so I don’t offend you anymore. (Roll eyes, turn, and walk away.)

We need to help our girls formulate strategies for dealing with and ditching the wrong people — this holds true even when those “wrong people” are friends and family. Tell your girls that it’s okay to let others know how they feel, and that they don’t have to stand quietly when someone is being abusive.

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Stand up for her.

Several years ago, I met with a very concerned woman and her 13-year-old daughter. The daughter was overweight and clearly distraught. Only she wasn’t upset about being overweight so much as she was about wanting to please her mother and father.

Come to find out that dad had some choice “pet” names for the young girl, including hippo and tubby. When I confronted mom about dad’s pet names, all she had to say was, “Well, I’m not the one saying them…and we really want her to lose some weight so the kids at school don’t tease her”.

What?!? That doesn’t even make sense! How awful for that poor young girl.

If you hear someone make a disparaging remark against your girl — and I don’t care if it’s dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, sibling, best friend, or a doctor — you better f—cking stand up for her. It is never okay for someone to be verbally abusive.

It’s not even okay to be overly critical of a young girl’s appearance! Even seemingly benign comments (such as “wow, you’re eating an awful lot” or“you gained a lot of weight since last year”) can have a lasting impact. Negativity and criticism rarely help people change!

If you are the one making verbally abusive and/or unhelpful comments, forgive yourself, apologize to your child, and stop doing it.

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Micromanaging her life won’t help her body image.

When a parent sees their child becoming overweight or getting teased at school, it’s very easy to try to take control and micromanage the situation.

Suddenly, you’re trying to “help” your daughter go on a diet by eliminating all the junk food in the house and encouraging her to exercise, track food, and only eat carrot sticks.

Many adult women have told me stories about their mothers padlocking cabinets, removing bedroom doors, and forcing them to go running. The women who experience this type of micromanagement as children are, sadly, often the heaviest and most difficult clients to help. Their food and body issues run deep.

Not only does restricting your child’s food give her the impression that you believe something is wrong with her, it usually makes the problem worse by causing undesirable behaviors like hiding food and bingeing on sweets at grandma’s.

Imagine yourself in her shoes. Imagine your husband, or sister, or a close friend trying to restrict what you eat, putting a padlock on the fridge, or forcing you to exercise. Even under the guise of them trying to be “helpful”, how well do you think that would go? How do you think it would affect your relationship?

My point is that positive change only happens when it’s by free choice. This goes for both kids and adults.

Let your girl know that you love and support her, no matter her weight, size, or appearance, and that you’re available if she needs to talk. Otherwise, unless your child comes to you and directly asks for assistance with diet and exercise, you are better off doing and saying nothing.

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Be aware of your own body image and behavior

I can’t tell you how many women I’ve witnessed stand in front of a mirror, with their children in the room, and make terrible comments about their own bodies.

You may think your kids aren’t listening or watching, but they are. Kids are very perceptive. You don’t even have to make disparaging remarks out loud for them to know that you dislike your body.

Exercising because you “ate too much over the weekend”, weighing yourself six times a day, refusing to buy clothes that fit your current body, or fearing carbs because “they make you fat”, are all sending a very specific message to your children.

It’s important to model good behavior, both in the physical and mental treatment of your body. Eating healthy food and exercising are wonderful behaviors to model to your children…unless you’re doing those things for the wrong reasons.

As a mom, I’m not trying to shame you. For me personally, this is the area where I’ve failed the most and need the most work. I’m guilty of exercising just so I can eat more, forcing myself to fast after having eaten a large meal, avoiding entire food groups over fear of weight gain, refusing to go to the pool, and just being generally “weird” about food and my body.

We all stand in front of the mirror and pick ourselves apart. We all model poor behaviors to our kids. We’re human. It’s impossible to be perfect. But there’s no time like the present to forgive yourself and change your own dialogue!

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Seek a professional and unbiased opinion from a qualified care provider.

Ideally you will take this step with the consent of your child. Professional opinions and therapy don’t work well unless the receiver has an open mind and wants the help. But in the event that your child is really struggling or doing physical harm to herself, you may need to step in and seek the help of a qualified therapist or eating disorder specialist. Be extremely careful with who you choose and make sure that therapist and child have a good rapport.

If you are seeking assistance for yourself or your child regarding body image and/or disordered eating, Center For Change is a great place to start!

The truth about body image

I don’t always love my body and I know my daughter won’t always love hers either. That’s normal — and our girls should know that too. Some dissatisfaction can be a good thing, as it’s the catalyst that keeps us striving to be better. But it should never get in the way of our overall happiness.

To all the parents who are struggling to help their daughters navigate modern society’s standards, I feel you. It’s a tough world and our girls need our guidance so they can learn to trust their bodies and be fully alive and happy!

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I hope you enjoyed this post and thank you for reading!

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Blog Author: Kelly Bailey, IIN certified holistic nutrition coach, and NPTI certified personal trainer

Learn more about the author here.