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Body Image

Airbrushed images of super-skinny models with large breasts, perfect tanned skin, and pin-straight shiny hair flood our television, movie, and computer screens as well as grace magazine covers. Most models in these images are thinner than 98% of U.S. girls and women. The average height and weight for a model is 5'10" and 110 pounds, while the average woman is actually 5'4" and 145 pounds. With such a high standard of beauty, many young girls are insecure about their bodies.

Top 5 Ways to Encourage Your Daughter to Have a Healthy Attitude about Weight, from Diane Henderiks

  1. Promote a healthy relationship with food:
    Discuss nutrition and why your body needs natural, whole foods in order to function properly. We need to eat to live, not live to eat.
  2. Don't talk negatively about your own body:
    Hopefully you are comfortable enough in your own skin, but if you are not, keep it to yourself! Your child will feed off of any negative discussions and comments.
  3. Exercise: Be a role model for regular physical activity! Many studies have shown that the key to a lifelong healthy weight is regular physical activity. Get physically active with your kids whenever possible.
  4. Don't use the word "diet":
    If you skip meals, buy prepackaged "diet" food, eat only "fat-free" or "lite" foods, or avoid "carbs," your kids will pick up on it and think that is how they should eat and think about food.
  5. Keep healthy foods on hand at all times:
    Get your kids involved in grocery shopping and food decision-making.

Between 40-60% of females in high school have dieted, 30-40% of junior high girls worry about their weight, and 40% of girls have even dieted at age 9, according to licensed family therapist Shannon Fox. "How tragic that the American 'ideal' body is seven sizes below the national average! It is no wonder that eating disorders are at an all-time high, diet pills are a billion-dollar business, and everyone jumps on the latest diet fad," Fox says.


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What Moms Can Do about Body Image

Girls involved in sports such as gymnastics and cheerleading often face a lot of pressure to have the "ideal" body for their activity, and sometimes this pressure comes from their teammates and coaches. Counseling mom Rosanne Tobey provides tips for moms of athletes:

  • Evaluate yourself: If you're constantly complaining about cellulite and kimono arms, your children hear you. Tobey says, "If you're consumed with wanting someone else's body, it's hard to teach your daughter self-acceptance."
  • Emphasize different, not better: "We do the best we can with what we have been given," Tobey says. Show your daughter that she and her friends have different strengths and weaknesses.
  • Do damage control: If your kid has run into an evil coach or instructor, you have to work even harder to instill positive body image. Provide appropriate examples of successful women who are not rail-thin. Stress health and strength over aesthetics. Says Tobey, "Looking pretty and being unhealthy is not a good thing."


Moms also need to be aware of what their tween and teen daughters watch on the Internet. Thinspiration (Thinspo) videos on YouTube are popularly viewed photomontages of super-skinny or anorexic women meant to encourage girls to lose weight (and presumably become anorexic). Psychologist Lisa Boesky says moms should not allow their daughters to watch these videos at home. Even if they sneakily find a way to view them, girls need to know that these images go against your morals and values. If you notice your daughter is constantly viewing these videos or notice other signs of an eating disorder, seek professional help.

In addition to worrying about the shape of their bodies, tweens and teens often feel insecure about their hair and may think they need long, straight locks to be attractive. In one Seattle salon, girls as young as age 8 are getting their hair chemically straightened.

Pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson weighs in: "I am concerned about hair straightening among young girls for two reasons. The first -- and to me, more important -- is that a school-aged girl should not feel the need (or the pressure) to 'beautify.' What standards are we setting for our daughters if we take them to the hair salon for hair straightening at 8 or 9? Childhood is a time to run around with your frizzy hair or your mop-like ponytail and not care. If we tell our young daughters that they need to sit in a salon at this age, I feel sure that we are undermining their self-esteem. The one exception is a child battling an illness such as cancer. This child deserves -- and needs -- beautification in order to feel normal. So these kids choose to wear wigs or cute hats (or some choose nothing at all)." Dr. Natterson's second concern is the safety of using these chemicals on children.

Overall, moms need to set an example to teens and tweens by first promoting healthy body images themselves. "When parents instill superficial values in their children, often times they are trying to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy," says Jane Greer, Ph.D., a family therapist in New York City. "They may feel if their child is beautiful, it is a direct reflection on them."

"Every teen feels pressure to be pretty and popular, but when a mother validates that pressure, the child won't have a fighting chance to form confidence and individuality," says Greer.

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