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Six Ways to Boost Girls' (and Our) Body Image

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Our culture teaches our girls to be a hot body first and a mind second, says Melissa Atkins Wardy in this excerpt from "Redefining Girly." Here are her suggestions for breaking the mold.

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Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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(WOMENSENEWS)-- If we are honest about it, our culture values and judges women and girls based on the level of attractiveness of their bodies. It is a time-honored tradition that too few women are rebuking and teaching their daughters to reject as well.

It is a tradition that sets women up for failure and inhibits our daughters from loving themselves and taking pride in who they are, as they are. In the age of obesity, eating disorders, omnipresent marketing, Photoshop and celebrity worship, we parents need to begin to create some new traditions for our daughters that include body confidence, acceptance, a little reality and healthful messages.

Our culture teaches our girls to be a hot body first and a mind second (or not at all). The definition of what is an acceptable body is often so narrow that it is generally unachievable for most of the population. There is so much emphasis put on being seen as attractive and desirable, usually to the exclusion of all other things, that girls internalize these values, and we are seeing it take an emotional and psychological toll on them. These girls become young women who become mothers, and the cycle continues. The mothers become grandmothers, yet, despite what should be wisdom in years, the cycle continues.

We must break this cycle. The population with the fastest-growing rate of eating disorders, aside from children under 12 years old, is the elderly. From cradle to grave, it would seem, women are conditioned never to love our bodies. Really, is that any way to live? Are we really accepting that half of the population should be unhappy in their skin?

The No. 1 gift a mother can give her daughter is a positive self-image in the face of rampant cultural stereotypes and media sexualization. How your daughter feels about herself will impact everything she does, every decision she makes. Dads play a big role too. Whatever your family makeup is, let's decide here and now that with us, it starts to change.

Six Steps

Here are some effective general actions we can take no matter our child's age to support positive body image in our daughters, as well as more strategies by age range.


  1. Knock off the fat talk. Negative statements about your own or others' bodies (weight, size, food that goes in it) have to stop. This includes talk among guests in your home, and during social settings. Stop vocally giving your daughter permission to hate herself by tearing down your body or the bodies of others.

  2. Focus your comments about your daughter's body on what she is doing and accomplishing with her body, not how it looks. Whether she is taking her first steps or tearing it up in varsity basketball, make your comments count toward building up her sense of self-worth. Hear the difference between "Oh, pretty girl, look at you!" and "There's my big girl using her strong legs! We've got a walker!"

  3. Provide clothes for your daughter that allow her to play and move. I hear from so many teachers and coaches that girls today do not know how to take up space with their bodies or fully use the range of their bodies because they are restricted by tight or revealing clothing, inappropriate footwear and self-consciousness.

    If your daughter is little, realize that most of the young adult apparel is simply age-compressed down into the girls' department; those styles aren't really designed for a growing and playing child's body. Find clothing that is appropriate for the demands of an active childhood. While department stores and big box shops are usually the biggest offenders when it comes to inappropriate girls' clothing, smaller or specialty retailers including Hanna Andersson, L.L.Bean, Lands' End, Carter's and Crazy 8 routinely offer durable and attractive play clothes.

    If your daughter is older, help her make apparel choices that reflect the personal brand you want her to project, meaning: who she is, what she stands for and how she values herself. And give her the space to make a bad choice every now and then; it teaches her that she has agency over her body.


  4. Eat healthfully as a family. It is not complicated to teach our kids the value of nutritious foods and the idea of eating less healthy foods only in moderation. We don't want to teach our kids that foods are "good" or "bad" or that eating a particular food makes you "good" or "bad," but at the same time we need to get real about the difference between a fresh peach and a basket of fried mozzarella sticks. Food is a source of fuel and enjoyment in life and should not be turned into a source of shame and anxiety.

  5. Make meals a time of gathering together. The best time to teach your children to have a healthy relationship with food is during family meals. A lot of us have lost this tradition, with hectic work and activity schedules, but family mealtime is important. The idea of coming together for meals is as old as time, and there is a reason for it. It allows us to be grateful for the food in front of us and what it means in our life. It allows us to slow down, connect and communicate. A family meal, once a day or at least a few times a week, allows us to show our children that food nourishes us physically, while the people we love nourish us emotionally.

  6. Let your daughter see and hear you enjoying life with your awesome body. Take family walks or bike rides, go play catch outside or do yoga on the patio, walk like a queen/king in your bathing suit. By showing your daughter that our bodies are instruments, not ornaments, life takes on a different meaning. An ornament is meant to be gazed at and set up high to be admired for its prettiness. An instrument has the purpose of creating and doing.

Excerpted with permission from "Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween" by . Published by , . Available via ChicagoReviewPress.com, Amazon.com, BN.com, Indiebound, and wherever books are sold.

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