girls and body image: shaping her perspective regarding her shape

My nine-year-old kicked off her jeans and hurled them across the room. “I’m just fat!”

What? Where did that come from?

“Madison Grace, you are definitely not fat!”

“Then why can’t I fit into those jeans? Emily and Taylor wore them when they were my age.”

“Your body is different from Emily and Taylor’s.”

“Right,” she said, “Because I’m fat.”

I couldn’t decide if I should scold her or hug her. “Stop saying that. You’re body is perfectly fine. You’re strong and healthy. You can do amazing things with that body.”

It’s true. Madison is a gymnast and an active, athletic girl. She loves to climb. She loves doing handstands and back flips and flying around uneven bars. She takes great pleasure in beating the boys in her class at pull-up competitions. But when her older sister’s “slim” jeans didn’t fit, she concluded that she had a problem. Body Image collage 2

The whole conversation was troubling and sad. Fourth grade girls shouldn’t be worrying about their figures. They shouldn’t be comparing themselves to other girls or some unrealistic physical ideal.

Unfortunately, as the mom of three girls, I’d been through this before. Not long ago Madison’s older sisters had also struggled with negative views of their bodies. Their complaints came from the other end of the spectrum.

“Why do I always have to wear jeans with those stupid adjustable waist bands? My friends wear clothes from the junior department. I’m just too skinny.”Body Image 8Like most moms, I analyzed myself to determine where I’d gone wrong. Had I set a bad example? Had I made negative comments about my own weight or shape? I honestly didn’t think so. I wasn’t one to obsess about weight. I tried to eat healthy, but my girls had also seen me enjoy many guilt-free milkshakes over the years. So why had all three of my girls struggled with body image?

I’m sure there are many factors. I could blame society or social media. I could write it off as “a girl thing.” I could even blame it on sports that require girls and teenagers to wear skimpy leotards and skin-tight spandex. (Don’t get me started.)

I don’t have all the answers, but I have helped three girls walk through some rough spots. These are some things that have helped:

  • Listen to her concerns – even though you disagree.
    When my first daughter complained about being “too skinny,” my immediate reaction was to shake my head and disagree. After all, I needed to convince her she was wrong! With my third daughter, I try to hold my opinions and let her vent her feelings. I’ll get my chance to express my views. But most importantly, I want her to know if she comes to me I will listen.
  • Focus on health and fitness rather than weight.
    As much as possible, I try to provide healthy food choices. We also encourage our girls to be active and try different sports. We go for walks. We try to show them it’s more about having fun and being healthy than wearing a particular jean size.Body Image collage 1
  • Talk about media images.
    The images are everywhere. I can’t shield my daughters from them, but I can take advantage of teachable moments. While standing in line at the grocery store we can discuss that “perfect” girl on the glossy magazine cover. She needs to understand that no one really looks like that. (Even the girl on the cover doesn’t look like that!) We can talk about how pictures are altered to make girls look flawless.
  • Focus more on who she is instead of how she looks.
    Every girl likes a compliment – and I do compliment them on their appearance. But I try to praise them more for their strengths, achievements and character qualities. Who they are inside is much more important than how they look on the outside. Their sense of worth shouldn’t come from their appearance.
  • Be a positive example.
    It’s tough to teach a lesson that I’m still learning. But kids are always watching and listening. I need to be mindful of how I talk about my own appearance. If I make negative comments about my body, she is more likely to be critical of hers. I also need to learn how to graciously accept a compliment. (I’m usually quick to disagree or brush it off.) After all, if someone tells my daughter, “You look just like your mom,” I want her to think that’s a good thing!  

The other day Madison made a negative comment about her body. I knew I shouldn’t compare her to someone else, but I’d had enough.

“Let me ask you a question. Do you think Shawn Johnson is fat?”

“Of course not!” Madison adores Shawn Johnson.

“Well, here’s what I think,” I said. “I think your body shape is very similar to Shawn Johnson’s.”

Body Image 3

I had her attention, so I kept talking.

“She’s got power, flexibility, grace and guts – and it’s all wrapped up into one impressive package.”

Madison smiled.

And I think we made progress.

My girls will go through many changes over the next several years. But they don’t have to be a cookie-cutter image of anyone else. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. I hope they’ll appreciate their healthy bodies and unique shapes. But most of all, I hope they’ll feel beautiful – inside and out.

Body ImageHow about you? Have you experienced this with your daughter? Have you struggled with body image yourself? What tips can you share that might help our daughters have a more healthy body image? Leave your comments. I’d love to hear from you!

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2 Responses to girls and body image: shaping her perspective regarding her shape

  1. Julie Minard January 20, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    Your last paragraph opening statement! You’re right on – our bodies change! If you had told me 20 years ago when I started growing a ‘woman’s’ body how MANY changes would take place between having kids and metabolism changes due to age/hormones between then and now I may not have believed you. Good for you for being honest and encouraging to your kids. Making healthy nutritional choices and staying active is all our kids (of all ages) need (of course with unconditional love from us). I have a daughter who believes everything she hears on tv and often asks me about calories. I tell her we make good choices in our house and she is way too active to worry about that. I have a daughter who is growing like a weed and whose metabolism is off the charts and I am daily thankful for adjustable waist pants, and good or bad – her mom bought her freshman homecoming dress from the girls’ department – it’s in the genes! Keep celebrating INDIVIDUALITY!
    One thing I do to compliment my daughters is to focus on hair, or the color they’re wearing – “you look so pretty in that color”. I think we all have our go-to colors that cheer us up or compliment our eyes. In all honesty, my girls are just as pretty in puke-green and bald, but we all like to play dress-up at different levels. Some girls feel their best in their tennis shoes, others in their glittery flats.(nobody feels good in heels, that stuff just hurts!)
    I believe my image was influenced by my parents. I am thankful for the consistent love and encouragement they showed me. They taught me how to be healthy – mind, body, soul. When you feel good on the inside, it shows on the outside. Last thing I’ll add is that my mom was a make-up wearer and in my teenage desire to act out or be different from her I have never liked to wear make-up….to this day.
    Great article, Sheri! Thanks for sharing.

    • Sheri January 21, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks for your comments Julie! And I love that … “When you feel good on the inside, it shows on the outside.” I agree!

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