Healthy body image: Tips for guiding girls

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Healthy body image: Tips for guiding girls

Girls often face significant pressure to be physically attractive. The quest for a perfect body can take a heavy toll, though. Find out what you can do to help your daughter develop and maintain a healthy body image.

Causes of a negative body image

Maintaining a healthy body image during adolescence is often difficult for girls. Factors that might harm a girl's body image include:

  • Natural weight gain and other changes caused by puberty
  • Peer pressure to look a certain way
  • Media images that promote the ideal female body as thin
  • Having a mother who's overly concerned about her own weight or her daughter's weight or appearance

Consequences of a negative body image

If your daughter doesn't live up to her ideal body image, she might begin to feel inadequate and ashamed of her body — even if she's not overweight. This can increase the risk of mental health concerns, including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders

Sometimes a negative body image leads to skipping meals or a cycle of dieting, losing weight and regaining weight — which can further harm self-esteem.

Some research suggests a link between body dissatisfaction among girls and cigarette smoking, possibly because girls believe that smoking will help them control their weight.

Having a negative body image also might affect a girl's comfort with her sexuality as she gets older. A negative body image might lead some girls to consider cosmetic surgery.

Talking about body image

Talking about body image with your daughter can help her become comfortable with her body shape and relate to food in a healthy way.

When you discuss body image, you might:

  • Explain the effects of puberty and genetics. Make sure your daughter understands that weight gain is a normal part of her development, especially during puberty. Explain that body shape is strongly influenced by genetic factors.
  • Talk about media messages. Television programs, movies, music videos, websites, magazines and even some children's toys might send your daughter the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Check out what your daughter is reading or watching and discuss it with her. Encourage her to talk about and question what she's seen or heard.
  • Discuss self-image. Talk to your daughter about her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Ask her what she likes about herself and explain what you like about her, too. Your acceptance and respect can help her build self-esteem and resilience.
  • Use positive language. Rather than talking about "fat" and "thin," encourage your daughter to focus on eating a healthy diet and staying physically active. Discourage family and friends from using hurtful nicknames and joking about people who are overweight or have a large body frame.

Other strategies to promote a healthy body image

In addition to talking to your daughter about a healthy body image, you might:

  • Team up with your family doctor. Your family doctor can help your daughter set realistic goals for body mass index and weight based on her personal weight history and overall health. The doctor can also help identify early signs of an eating disorder during routine checkups.
  • Help establish healthy eating habits. Offer healthy meals and snacks, but be careful to let your daughter make choices about the food she eats.
  • Counter negative media messages. You might not be able to shield your daughter from media images that promote an idealized image of women's bodies. You can, however, expose her to women who are famous for their achievements — not their appearance. For example, read books or watch movies about inspiring women.
  • Encourage a positive school environment. Support school policies that aim to stop size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing, and name-calling — and support community efforts to improve school nutrition.
  • Praise achievements. Help your daughter value what she does, rather than what she looks like. Look for opportunities to praise her efforts, skills and achievements.
  • Encourage physical activity. Participating in sports and other physical activities — particularly those that don't emphasize a particular weight or body shape — can help promote good self-esteem and a positive body image.
  • Set a good example. Remind your daughter that you exercise and eat a healthy diet for your health, not just to look a certain way. Also think about what you read and watch as well as the products you buy and the message your choices send.

When to consult a doctor

Developing and maintaining a healthy body image isn't an easy task for girls. If your daughter is struggling with a negative body image, consider professional counseling. Additional support might give your daughter the tools she needs to counter social pressure and feel good about her body.

Last Updated: 2012-09-12
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