What We Need To Stop Telling Girls About Their Bodies

by Rachel Toalson
body image
Imgorthand / iStock

Every month, I sit with a beautiful group of ladies and discuss our book of the month and, mostly, our lives. We eat chocolate and drink a little wine and sort through all the things that have happened to us in the stretch between the last book club meeting and this one.

At the most recent meeting, we found ourselves talking about beauty and body image (because we’re women, and this is a big deal to women). One of my friends is a teacher, and she explained that something had recently happened in her school. Some first-grade girls were playing on the playground, and because they all took gymnastics, they decided to start a gymnastics club. There was another little girl who did not take gymnastics but wanted to be in the club too. When she asked, one of the little girls (who is only 6 or 7, keep in mind), told her, “You have to be skinny to be in the gymnastics club.” She didn’t say this in a mean or a judgmental or a meant-to-be-hurtful way. She said it matter-of-factly, repeating something she’d been told by her coaches.

So the other little girl, who was not allowed into this playground gymnastics club, went home and asked if her mom, who is thin, could help her be thinner. This little girl is not fat. She’s just rounder, as many 6- and 7-year-olds who have not yet grown into their bodies, are. Her mom took the problem to the school, trying to figure out why her daughter, who was way too young to be aware of body image, had come home asking how she could be thinner.

The little girls don’t know any better, but the adults in their lives do. And we should be doing better than this. Do you know what a little girl hears when she is 6 years old and can’t be in some stupid club because she’s not thin enough? She will hear for the rest of her life that she is not thin enough to be in some ridiculous exclusive club.

I know. I was once that little girl.

See, when I was 6 years old, my parents didn’t have a whole lot of money. But they scrimped up enough to put me in a ballet class. I was a tall girl, awkward—big-boned, my mother called me. When I look back at the pictures of me as a child, I was not a fat little girl, but I was built a little larger than others my age. When my mom was discussing the ballet lessons with my instructor, after I’d taken them for a couple of months, the instructor, who was an actual French ballerina, told her, within earshot, that I was probably going to be too fat for ballet and my mom should just save her money. She said it matter-of-factly, as if there was no room for argument.

Now, I understand that there are certain body types that lend themselves more naturally to activities like ballet, and there are certain body types that make gymnastics easier. But if we are urging our 6-year-olds to concern themselves with being thinner just so they can achieve that body type and somehow have some kind of leg up on all the others, then we’re going about it all wrong.

Girls this young should not even be aware of their bodies and what’s “wrong” with them. We have plenty of time to realize those things later, if the world has anything to say about it. Girls this young should be playing out on school playgrounds, enjoying the company of other “gymnasts” in their gymnastics club, or twirling around like the “ballerina” they imagine themselves to be, without looking at their body and thinking they need to change it.

I know coaches want to win. I know instructors want what is best for their students, and oftentimes what is best is gently pushing them out of whatever lessons they’re taking, because they’re just not cut out for it. But using the body as a way to push them out? That’s not acceptable.

I’m not saying that every coach is obsessed with winning. Not every coach would tell a little girl she was too fat or too tall or too slow or too whatever to succeed in her sport. Many coaches are loving, supportive mentors to our little girls, and that’s a really amazing thing (thank you, supportive coaches). But until we can say that all of them are, we’ve got a problem on our hands.

I went through my high school, college, and young adult years starving myself, still trying to prove that I was thin enough to be beautiful, thin enough to be a successful journalist, thin enough to be a good dancer, thin enough to be graceful, thin enough to be accepted, thin enough to be in the “in” group, and, sure, it wasn’t all because of that ballet instructor. But the early memories of someone commenting negatively on your body have a way of sinking down deep and festering there. So when we tell our 6-year-old girls that they don’t have a thin enough body to do (insert activity here), what we’re doing is handing them a ticket straight to eating disorder hell, or body hatred hell, or body dysmorphia hell, or whatever it becomes in the life of that little girl. It manifests in many different ways—anxiety, obsession, depression, those too.

Stop telling little girls they’re not thin enough.

Stop exalting the idea that there is only one body type that is beautiful. Stop ruining girls’ perceptions of themselves. Stop making our little girls hyperaware of their bodies before they’re even able to properly spell the word “bodies.” Stop teaching them that beauty is all there is to women.

I don’t have a little girl. I don’t get to assure her that she’s beautiful just the way she was made. I don’t get to tell her that she is perfect in every way. I don’t get to explain that, yeah, it’s good to make healthy choices and do good things for our bodies, but it’s never OK to starve ourselves just to fit a certain prototype that is exalted above all the others.

But if I did have a daughter, this is what I would say:

You are beautiful just the way you are. You are more than your body. So much more. Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something just because of the way you look. You are brave and creative and kind and strong and good enough.

Because these are the things I wish someone had told me.