How To Talk To Your Girls About Body Image

by Shannon Master
Originally Published: 
A girl measuring her body
kwanchaichaiudom / iStock

On the second day of fourth grade, I walked my 9-year-old daughter Ava to class. As I was saying goodbye, she asked if she could tell me something in private. My mom antennae immediately stood at attention. Is it bullying? Did she get in trouble?

We stepped aside to a quiet spot in the school hallway where she revealed to me, near tears, that she was walking funny.

“Because my stomach is fat,” she admitted, triggering negative self-talk cry mode. She demonstrated that she was walking with her shoulders and waist slightly bent forward all day to hide her “fat” stomach.

As a woman, I totally get this experience. But as a 9-year-old, how could she feel this horrible about herself already? Of all things to worry about at this age, being fat isn’t one of them. Except that it is.

The immense pressures that our society puts on girls to be thin and beautiful starts as young as 6 years old and remains our entire lives. This is nothing new and certainly not changing anytime soon, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try to nip it in the bud at an early age for this kid, and any other kid I can reach. I’ve learned a lot in my 43 years, not the least of which is the realities of body image and how the way we as girls and women negatively see ourselves can lead to depression, unhealthy behaviors, and eating disorders.

For all intents and purposes, let’s just assume her body image issues are my fault. It’s an easy place for moms to start.

Once you become a mother, especially the mother of a girl, all of your insecurities and sense of worthlessness are dislodged from their comfortably hidden mud holes and propelled to the surface with unquestionable clarity, forcing you to reconsider everything you do and say, everything you are, and everything you pass on to that bundle of precious girlhood relying on you to shape her mind, body, and spirit into everything you never had — confidence and self-esteem with an unwavering sense of worth.

I am to blame for all the times I looked in the mirror and berated my round stomach. For aging ungracefully. For saying out loud that I am fat and don’t like my own body — and not necessarily in front of my child. I’m not that blatant. But as it turns out, I have a smart kid who can overhear me from the next room or sense why I don’t enjoy being in a bathing suit. Why would she develop a strong sense of self in all body incarnations if her mother doesn’t have it?

The good news is that I know I’m not alone here, considering that roughly 91% of college-age American women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape. I, personally, don’t believe in dieting — perhaps this explains my predicament. Or perhaps not. Only 8% of women naturally possess the hourglass body type often portrayed in the media in the first place.

You can tell a child until you’re blue in the face that she is not at all fat, that what people think of her doesn’t matter, that who she is inside, and how she treats others is what matters, that she is beautiful just as she is.

How’s that been working for you? Let’s be real. We know not one word of it will change the way she already feels or eliminate the pressure from her peers and society at large. So after all that intense self-blame for being in the 91% of female body-loathers creating a new generation of body loathers, pull yourself up by the fat rolls and do this Body Image Worksheet with your girls. I’m not a doctor, just a proactive mom who compiled this approach from my research, and to my surprise, it worked for my girl. Maybe it will work for your girls, too.

Start with a casual sit-down discussion.

This only took my daughter and me less than an hour. Get comfy. Keep to the point. Listen and respond to her questions and input. You’ll be amazed at what she might reveal in this discussion when guards are down.

Admit your own body issues.

Kids respond well to an adult who admits they have made mistakes too. Explain that you are also insecure about your body, about what others think of the way you look. Explain that you have improvements to make, too, about how you talk negatively to yourself, about consciously eating well, and keeping physically active to stay healthy.

Puberty is a normal part of development.

Puberty can start as early at 8 years old. Preadolescent females acquire what is often called “baby fat,” which may give them a more rounded belly. This development may cause considerable anxiety for these girls, as is the case with my girl. This weight gain of puberty comes at a time when a girl may be comparing herself to her peers, supermodels, and celebrities.

Explain that this connective tissue where fat is stored around the middle is part of normal development. The body will soon redistribute the fat from the stomach and waist to the breasts and hips, which will eventually mold a womanly figure. I told my girl she was lucky because this means she’s already started puberty. Let your girls know this is an exciting time and something to celebrate!

Discuss the negative impact body-beauty pressure can have on girls.

If not put in check, this pressure, plus any bullying they may witness or experience, can be all-consuming and have significant health impacts on girls as they become teenagers. The initial anxiety and depression a girl can feel about her body can develop into clinically distorted images of her body that morphs into harmful behaviors like self-harming and eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.

Don’t be afraid to share this reality with your girls. I showed my daughter a YouTube video made by a young woman discussing her experience with bullying and eating disorders. We both cried at the end of the video because this courageous girl could be any of us. It is helpful for your child to see and hear from their peers on this issue, so they know they are not alone in feeling this way.

As their parent, you can determine age-appropriate details for your girls, but my philosophy is that it is better for the parent to be the one sharing honest, accurate, and direct information with your child, rather than having them learn it on their own from other inaccurate sources — namely, their young, uninformed peers. It builds trust between you and your child so they feel comfortable talking to you about the private, embarrassing stuff. It also empowers your girls with knowledge to stick up for themselves and others, while understanding what is happening with their bodies so they can better navigate the minefield of body-beauty pressure and mean girls.

Other people’s opinions and her own self-worth.

During our discussion, Ava shared with me that one of her friends was calling another girl in their class “fat.” That same supposed friend has been “playfully” making fun of Ava’s “chubby” cheeks and “double” chin over the past couple of school years too. All of this was contributing to making Ava feel fat and insecure about her changing body. She became so obsessed with how others perceived her and who would say mean things about her body that she began walking funny to hide her stomach.

I used her story as an example to explain that we are so much more than our bodies, and if somebody doesn’t appreciate us for all aspects of us, then maybe they’re not somebody we need to have in our lives.

Reinforce to your child that her self-worth is not dictated by other people’s opinions. Her self-worth is based on the beautiful person she is inside and how she expresses that person on the outside. Pose a question to her concerns to make this concept more tangible. Does calling someone fat make the person saying it beautiful?

Tell your child there is only one (insert your child’s name here). Tell her to show the world that person and that she will be admired for having the courage to be herself because most people are too scared to be who they really are. When I told Ava this, she lit up with empowerment because she realized it was okay to be herself because there is only one of her, and that means she is pretty damn worth it.

Remind her of her resilience.

Without question, life will be hard. Make sure your girl knows this. Make sure she experiences difficulty and is held accountable for her words and actions. Sheltering does nothing to build character or arm our children with resilience. Make sure your child knows she is not perfect and never will be — that no one is. But also make sure she knows that whatever she doesn’t like about herself is not insurmountable. Remind her she is smart and strong inside. Assure her that she has what it takes to get through the hard times because she has the constant ability to learn and grow and do something about it.

Point out the reasons why she loves to move her body.

Ava loves soccer. Your daughter may love gymnastics or swimming or playing on the playground, riding her bike, jumping on a trampoline. Whether they are in a sport or just love to play, ask her what she loves about that activity. Most of the time, she’ll say she loves it simply because it’s fun. Maybe she’ll say she loves it because she likes to go fast, or she likes the music, or she likes to be creative, or she likes to win. Explain to her that all of those reasons mean that she loves to move her body because it feels good, not just the way it could make her look. We all know that moving our bodies is great for putting ourselves in a good mood, for reducing stress and anxiety from life’s hard times, and helping us stay healthy. Let her know that when she feels good, she looks good, no matter what size or shape her body is.

Then end with these activities:

Google before-and-after Photoshop images.

This activity had my kid wide-eyed. She had no idea that the images of celebrities and models she’s been seeing all this time are not exactly real. One image we found had a “before” picture that showed the model’s natural line where her resting arm met the side of her body at the underarm area. The “after” picture had photoshopped that line out so all you saw was a blob of unnaturally long skin between her arm and her side, like she had a webbed armpit. It didn’t look human and was so unnecessary that Ava was laughing and shouting how gross it was to morph a person’s figure that way.

This is a great opportunity to show-and-tell the role media, advertising, and celebrities play in how women are pressured to look in our society. It’s the same old song and dance, but your young girls don’t realize it yet. Explain that advertising capitalizes on our insecurities by selling us makeup, hair products, weight loss, and all the things women (don’t) “need” to be beautiful. Share that celebrities are just as imperfect as anyone else.

Ava asked in disbelief, “Even Beyoncé?” Yes, even Beyoncé.

When your girls know that real women can be as fit, thin, and beautiful as the standards imposed by society, and still be photoshopped so they are even more impossibly perfect, they will begin to see the bigger picture.

You could expand this for older girls to show examples from social media. Explain the role social media plays in being a tool that only represents the perfect image of ourselves rather than the very real, very imperfect lives we live and skin we live in.

The point is to teach our girls to always think critically about what they see and hear in the media-laden world around them, and how to process it with a rational awareness, rather than a sinking insecurity.

Write Top 10 Lists

This was by far the most impactful lesson of this whole worksheet. If you do nothing else, do this top 10 exercise. I had Ava write down her top 10 things she likes about herself, and I did my own top 10 of what I like about myself. It’s good practice to focus on the positive.

Then, I had Ava state the top 10 things she likes about me as I wrote them down one by one. She likes that I am loving, helpful, hilarious (why, thank you), giving to others, secretly a superhero (how did she know?), passionate, organized, conservationist, there for her, and — no lie — she likes that I chose the right man to be her amazing father.

I then stated the top 10 things I like about her as she wrote them down one by one: that she is compassionate, funny, adventurous, has her own style, caring, kind, self-aware, honest, sporty, artistic, talented, organized, responsible — okay, that was more than 10, but she’s my kid. I could go on and on.

Here is where the real impact lives in this whole worksheet. After we made our top 10 lists, I asked her if any of the things she likes about me would change if my body or appearance changed, if she thought any of the things I liked about her would change if her body or appearance changed.

Her response was stunned silence. An enlightened smile slowly appeared across her face as it sank in. The unspoken answer was no. Not one single thing would change about all the things we like about ourselves or each other, no matter what our bodies looked like.

And there it is, the truth of body image, the what-really-matters-is-on-the-inside lesson, actually understood, for both of us.

The next day I dropped her off at school and reminded her to walk like she was proud to be herself. She smiled and said she would. I smiled and said I would too.

When she got home from school that third day of fourth grade, she declared, “Today was a great day.” And just like that, her funny walk was gone.

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