Before I start, I have a disclaimer of sorts. This post will focus on women and girls, not because men and boys are free of struggles with body image, but because most of what is known about this topic focuses on women and girls.

I was recently at a summer neighborhood picnic and was struck by something important. A 5-year-old girl was wearing a frilly cotton dress while running around and playing just as roughly as the boys – even some of the older ones. She also had a headband in her hair with a fake flower that covered close to half of her head. Just watching her, it was clear that she felt confident and strong and didn’t feel the need to look like a “tomboy” in order to feel that way. As she approached me, I remarked that she looked fancy for the party. She looked me straight in the eyes and exuberantly responded, “I know!” Her mom and I laughed with each other about it. But on second thought, why was it funny? Rather than funny, it was actually fantastic. Here was a girl who had not yet unlearned the feeling of confidence in her body and strength and also had not yet unlearned accepting a compliment and really feeling its truth. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all women and girls still felt that way and didn’t outgrow it?

The unfortunate truth is that they don’t. In fact, statistics from the National Eating Disorder Association indicate that 42 percent of 1st to 3rd grade girls want to be thinner, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 46 percent of 9 to 11-year-olds say that they “sometimes” or “very often” diet. This is alarming, because 20 to 25 percent of dieters progress to disordered eating behaviors or diagnosable eating disorders. In fact, a classic paper from 1984 ("Women and weight: A normative discontent" by Rodin, Silberstein, and Striegel-Moore published in the Nebraska Symposium on Motivation) argues that body dissatisfaction is so commonplace among American women that it is difficult to find a “normal control” group for research – in other words, it is hard to find American women who feel comfortable with their own bodies. Surprisingly, even when super models are interviewed, they often point “flaws” in their bodies.

Look at any women’s magazine, and you can see this problem quite clearly. Most magazines have cover stories heralding the latest way to lose weight or improve body shape. And the last pages of these magazines typically have advertisements selling the myth of body transformation. Buy this product or participate in this diet program and you too can become a “before” and “after.” Go to that core sculpting class, and you will carve your body into the one you’ve always wanted. Speaking of carving, in some South American countries, for a girl’s quinseniera (a major celebration for the 15th birthday) she may be given breast implants or some other form of plastic surgery. How must this influence self-concept and self-esteem? “Happy birthday, you’re not good enough!” These are clearly not the messages that girls and women should internalize.

This has to change, but how can we work to do that? What follows are just a few ideas about what might have potential to help. It is not an exhaustive list, and not all of it will feel right for everyone.

1) Eliminate “body talk” (discussion of weight, shape, dieting) with family and friends.

2) Focus on your body’s strength, health, and what it helps you achieve. Talk the same way to the girls around you.

3) Examine advertising in a new light. Are they trying to sell transformation, play on your insecurities, and if so, how so? Don’t believe in a “magic bullet.”

4) Exercise to feel good rather than to chip away at yourself.

5) Allow yourself to eat all sorts of food rather than focusing on deprivation.

6) Rather than complimenting appearance, compliment a person’s intelligence, talents, kindness, and perseverance.

7) Learn to accept compliments even if you don’t yet believe them. Accepting them is the first step toward internalizing them.

8) Identify your positive attributes rather than focusing on ways you feel you aren’t measuring up.

9) Get a little outraged and get involved – teach the children in your life about these concepts. You can do better for the next generation and by teaching these ideas you also change yourself.

What would our world be like if more women and girls actually felt their own strength as opposed to their perceived short-comings? We should all be working toward this – for women and girls as well as men and boys.

About the Author

Ann Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D.

Ann Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

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