By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.
Some of the most frequent questions we’re asked about body image revolve around teaching and raising young girls. The reasons why are obvious: It is extremely difficult to live in a female body, let alone raise girls growing up in this wildly objectifying world. Far too often, girls grow up being taught that they are to be looked at above all else. It doesn’t always happen so explicitly, but it happens consistently and implicitly if your eyes are open.
We talk to little girls about their pretty dresses and hair. Their toys and favorite characters have idealized and sexualized bodies and faces. We give them dress-up kits and makeup and play vanities. Most diet pills and weight loss plans are targeted directly at women and they see their moms, aunts and sisters on constant diets. In the top children’s and family movies, male characters outnumber female characters 2:1 in leading and supporting roles and speaking time, and female characters are three times more likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing and to be verbally objectified. On social media, girls see that the most popular influencers bare their bodies — often framed as “fitspiration,” “body positivity,” or empowerment. With a cell phone in hand, girls are undoubtedly pressured by boys to send sexy pictures in exchange for male approval and attention or to avoid being insulted and rejected.
No wonder rates of eating disorders have skyrocketed, with hospitalizations for little girls 12 and under doubling during the last decade. Rates of cosmetic surgery increased more than 137 percent since 2000, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on women – many younger than 18. And the constant body monitoring of self-objectification we know so well is leaving even the youngest of girls and the oldest of women with fewer cognitive resources available for mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance. No wonder women and girls face such immense pain and shame in their bodies. If we listen to the profit-driven lies in the world, we are bodies to be looked at, judged, and constantly in need of fixing.
Our work at Beauty Redefined illuminates that pain that comes to just feel like a normal part of girlhood and womanhood, but it also shines a light on the ways difficult experiences and feelings about our bodies can work for us instead of against us — giving us opportunities to push back on discomfort and objectification. Our game-changing approach to body image resilience explains the way we can become stronger because of our shame and painful experiences — not in spite of them. So many of you who are raising, guiding, or working to be a good example to young girls ask us how on earth you can help them navigate the pitfalls of objectification, and we want you to know that we believe in your power to do this successfully. It is your job to shine a light on the soul-sucking messages from real-life people, online people, media and companies that reinforce the lie that we are bodies to be looked at first and humans second. We are counting on you to call out those lies and replace them with the TRUTH.
We are more than bodies. We have work to do, and the world is desperate for every one of us to understand our purpose beyond our looks so we can lead fulfilling lives and contribute good to a world that needs us — not just a pretty vision of us, but all of us. Let’s teach and demonstrate this truth to the girls in our lives.
Raising Girls with Positive Body Image: FAQs
What do I do if she asks, “Am I pretty?”
Of course you think she’s adorable, and she should know that. But, more importantly, she is more than pretty or cute or adorable. Tell her who she is – smart, loving, curious, energetic, creative, articulate, compassionate, talented, etc. “I see the way you include those kids that no one else talks to. You are so kind and compassionate.” Or “You are an incredible artist. You have a gift that helps people feel happy!” Or anything else that helps her see her PURPOSE that extends far beyond how well she decorates the earth. When she can find her many purposes, she will feel less need to look to her beauty or her body to find purpose, love, and acceptance.
What do I do if she calls herself or someone else fat or asks if she’s fat?
Respond without putting a value on fat. It’s not good or bad, it’s not mean or nice, it just is. “Our fat keeps us warm, protects our insides and our bodies use it as energy. Isn’t that cool?” or “You are so lucky your body has fat on it – that means you’re alive and well.” Talk openly about how some bodies have more fat than others, for lots of different reasons, and that isn’t a good indicator of whether someone is healthy or not. We only need to worry about ourselves, and we should avoid talking about other people’s bodies. The second you respond to her calling someone fat by telling her “that’s not nice,” you are teaching her that fat is bad. Be a champion for body diversity.
What do I do if she wants to go on a diet or is restricting food?
Let her know that many people and companies in this world try to convince little girls and grown women that they should shrink and take up less space, but it’s a mean lie. This lie is intended to get girls to spend money and time worrying about their bodies instead of living and leading and serving and taking up space doing good in the world — and, too often, it works. Talk to her about how our bodies need and want food for lots of reasons, including for fuel and enjoyment, and that by paying attention to how she feels when she eats, she can take better care of her body and trust that her body will lead her toward choices that are good for her and that have nothing to do with her body size or shape. Let her know strict diets hurt our bodies and almost never lead to sustained weight loss. (Tip: Read the book “Intuitive Eating” and if you want more personalized help with all this complicated food stuff, find a non-diet dietitian.)
Do I need to stop putting on makeup in front of her since I want her to know she doesn’t need it to feel good about herself?
You don’t necessarily need to stop wearing makeup, but be real with her. Show her (and yourself) that you can live without makeup, and that you are YOU without needing any extras. Go to the store without mascara. Swim and workout makeup-free. Show her your reality so that she can appreciate her own. When your daughter is old enough, start talking to her about how hard it is to justify wearing makeup when you want her to know she’s perfect without it. Talk to her about how women and men are held to different standards where women have to decorate themselves – just to look “normal” – in ways men are not asked to do. Tell her about how billion-dollar industries are set up to make sure women are self-conscious of their eyelashes and the size of their pores and the shape of their brows and the color of their hair and all hair below their eyes and the size and shape of their breasts and behinds. Help her make choices for her own body that aren’t based in shame or feelings of needing to “hide” or “fix” in order to feel OK. Keep an open dialogue and challenge her to resist giving into profit-driven beauty ideals as long as she possibly can. It’s much easier to never start wearing makeup, getting eyelash extensions, waxing, dying hair, etc., than it is to stop once those things become your “normal.”
Should I even talk to her about her body at all?
A popular answer in recent years has been to skip body talk entirely. But we disagree! Don’t pretend like her body doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Instead, teach her how incredible her body is, regardless of her appearance or ability level. Talk to her about how her body is an instrument, not an ornament. Encourage her to think of use her body as an instrument for her own benefit and experience in all the ways she feels called to do – as a soccer player, a violinist, an artist, a singer, a gymnast, babysitter, a club president, a swimmer. Treat your own body the same way so she can see that you are first and foremost a woman that knows her body is good for much more than being looked at. Swim even when you are so nervous to be seen. Run after that frisbee even though you might sweat and jiggle. Raise your hand in that meeting even though it makes your heart pound. She will need to learn to push through her own self-consciousness that creeps in with age, especially for girls, and especially during puberty. Any thought or outside message that tries to tell her she is an ornament can be successfully challenged by reframing her perspective and reclaiming her power as an instrument for her own use, experience, and benefit.
What do I do when other people consistently compliment her for her beauty or thinness?
We recommend being firm and explicit about avoiding these comments whenever possible. When appropriate, let them know you are working to make sure she (and all girls and women!) know they are so much more than decorations, so you and she are working to notice and compliment people on more than their outsides. Work to change the conversation to illuminate the fact that she is more than her body. “Did you know she has been learning Spanish?” or “[Insert name], do you want to tell them about the book you’ve been reading?” Let them know it’s hard, but so worth it to remind girls and women of their value beyond their looks. It can be helpful to illuminate your reasons for avoiding body talk. For example, if a loved one has struggled with disordered eating or self-consciousness, consider telling the commenter about that problem and explain that you are working to avoid those problems in any way you can. When thinness is explicitly complimented, try something along the lines of, “We’re actually working together to get rid of the ‘thinner is better’ mindset since we’ve seen how much it has hurt people we love.”
In summary: You’ve got this. Don’t be down on yourself for past mistakes or when you feel like you’ve messed up in your actions or messaging toward the kids in your life. Learn all you can about body image and resilience, and do your very best. Make sure the girls in your life feel your love and admiration regardless of how they look — that alone will improve their chances of developing positive body image. We are all more than a body.Once we can see more in ourselves and everyone around us, we can be more!
If you want more guidance on this stuff, we worked for years to develop and test our online Body Image Resilience course that is available to individuals 14+. Through an in-depth 8-week video course (that also includes full text, graphics and audio), participants can learn how to 1) recognize harmful messages in media and culture about female bodies; 2) reflect on the ways those ideals have impacted your life; 3) redefine the ways you think about beauty, health and individual worth; and 4) develop resilience through your own path that utilizes four sources of power.