It is common to say that the media influences young girls' body image. Looking at fashion magazines with very thin models seems to have at least a short term effect on physical self-satisfaction, and many psychologists recommend programs aimed at helping girls overcome self dissatisfaction about their body image. There is, however, only sparse research exploring the ways girls of various ages themselves engage with the association of being thin and being interesting or worth knowing.
In working with JoFrost productions, I was able to see in action the ambivalence, compliance and resistance young girls show in response to idealization of the thin girl. A workshop, which was filmed, consisted of 18 girls (six 6-year-olds, six 9-year-olds, and six 12-year-olds). All the participants had normal body weight. One by one, each girl was brought into a large room with the daunting task of assessing seven slightly different photos of herself in which she was dressed in a black leotard. One of the seven images was accurate, unmodfied. Three images were altered to show increased body size at 5% increments: one photograph showed her at 5% above her actual body weight; another showed her at 10% above her actual body weight; and a third photo showed her at 15% above her body weight. The remaining three images showed her below her body weight—5%, 10% and 15% below her actual body weight. Each girl was asked to identify the accurate photo ("Which photo shows your actual size?"), and then asked which photo she preferred.
Only eight girls identified themselves correctly. Five of the girls correctly identified their accurate image and preferred that image. Eight out of the 18 girls said they preferred an image that showed them at a weight below their actual weight. So over 42% of the girls, who were of normal body weight, wanted to be thinner, while 52% were unable to identify an accurate portrayal of their physique.
This workshop did not simply generate more gloomy news about the early onset of girls' confusion as to body weight. Another wonderful exercise showed how easy it was for the girls to revise their own confusions about idealized bodies. Jo sat in a huddle with the younger girls (the 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds only) and together they looked through albums of photos. "Would you like to get to know her?" Jo asked, pointing to a strapping woman, with solid thighs. Often the first response was a shared shiver of revulsion—"Yuck, see how fat she is. I wouldn't want her to be my friend!" But then Jo provided some information about the person in the photo—she might have been a champion swimmer, or a charity worker. This immediately reversed the girls' first response where a girl or woman was assessed as interesting (worth getting to know) if they were "thin", but not if they were "fat/chunky". Then Jo prodded further, "And what about me?" They clearly adored her, each jostling to get close, some stroking her hair. "Look at my arms? Look at my legs. I'm not thin, am I? Wouldn't you say I was chunky?" This gave them pause, and they looked again at the photos, asking for imformation about the people photographed befor assessing whether they might want her as a friend.
Young girls only partially adopt the ideals we sometimes think they swallow whole. These girls were fully capable of reflecting on the implication of their fast-response bias, and to correct it. Instead of worrying about size 0 and air-brushed images, we may simply need to remind young girls—and their mothers—that real people are more than their photos.