Take time right now to think of a little girl in your life. What stands out? Is it her innocence peaking out from behind overgrown bangs? The playfulness that radiates from her every move? Or maybe an emotion comes to mind, like joy or happiness, when you watch her set up that tea party or play dress-up in your closet.
While all of our childhoods differ and come with a variety of stories, there is often a feeling of captivating love or protection when we think of the little girls in our lives, whether they be daughters, granddaughters, sisters, nieces or even ourselves years ago. She’s naïve to the world around her - anyone is at her age. She is free from the judgment or criticism of others, has profound loyalty, and if she finds a soul who will engage in the silliness of recess with her, she’s all in. She’ll commit her heart to other people without judging clothes or looks or even language barriers.
But something begins to happen as that little girl grows. The world takes ahold of her developing brain and alters her perception of herself and of others.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 42% of girls in first, second or third grade - typically between the ages of 6 and 8 - want to be thinner, and 81% of 10-year-olds are “afraid of being fat.” These two astounding statistics illustrate how negative body image and self-perception are not only persisting but also growing areas of concern.
Peers and the media are widely regarded as the two main sources to which young girls and adolescents turn to when shaping their views on themselves and this world. Those sources, then, ultimately provide the backbone for negative self-perception when they are consulted by young, easily-shaped minds.
But how do we know eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) aren’t solely genetic or hereditary, something we’re born with? Let’s pause on this.
Biologically, babies and children alike crave nourishment. They are in a constant state of growth, both physically and mentally, and their bodies are in need of food, care and love. At no point does a newborn push a bottle away due to the fear of adding fat to their rolls of skin or chubby tummies. This is a learned thought - something we pick up as we begin to enter the world or learn from our peers or family members. And these babies, who turn to toddlers who turn to dancing princesses who turn to elementary students who turn to teens, see these messages everywhere. They’re painted on Victoria’s Secret billboards, flashed on TV advertisements, found in the words of coaches who harp on their athletes to get leaner and faster. They are found within the calorie-counting apps and devices and sprinkled from the mouths of parents who are maintaining their own strict diets. Ultimately, media attaches happiness to a low body-weight and a particular, ideal body-type. And if you don’t achieve this body - be it by healthy means like exercise and dieting or unhealthy ways like not eating - you will not be as happy in life. Thus, negative body image satisfaction is born.
So, how do we as moms and dads, sisters and brothers, mentors and role models change this toxic thinking? How do we get our little girls to embrace and express their beauty? How do help our teenagers view themselves as beautiful again rather than an ever-changing project that is in a constant stage of tweaking?
To get to the bottom of those questions - or at least, scrape the top - PBS offers a few teachable parenting tips:
This is probably the simplest yet most effective way to help your little ones know that everything about them - from the hairs on their heads to their wiggly toes - is appreciated and valued.
Answer honestly: How often do you pick out her clothes, the colors of paint for her room or do her hair the way you want it every morning? These decisions may seem trivial, but give her the option to choose between pink or blue walls, this sparkly skirt or that plaid one, braids or pigtails. This allows her to realize her own opinions and views of herself matter and are important. Then, when she becomes a teenager and has multiple outlets telling her what clothes to wear or music to listen to, she’ll already have her own sense of identity.
Put Focus On Her Personality
It’s easy to give the people around us outer-appearance compliments - commenting on their clothes, their hair, their smile, their makeup. But in order to downplay media messages and up-play positive self-concept and esteem, focus on traits you cannot physically see.
Statements like, “I think it’s incredible how you worked through that math problem without giving up” or “I love how kind you were when you helped your brother climb up the stairs” will impact her heart and soul more than any outer-appearance compliment ever could.
Talk It Out
While the media has dangerous effects on adolescent and child-like thinking, it wouldn’t be wise to overprotect, shelter or keep your kids from those messages entirely.
The reality is they’re going to be exposed to this information eventually. With proper boundaries and limitations on TV use and magazine exposure, start to make conversation with your kids about how the media is portraying girls. For example, if you find your teen reading magazines such as Seventeen or TeenVogue, be forward in asking her what she thinks about the emphasis these publications place on female thinness or outer beauty.
Love - don’t judge. Become that little girl again if you have to. When your daughter dances to music in the hotel lobby, dance with her. If she opts to wear a polka dot shirt with pinstriped pants, embrace her unique sense of style. Feed off of her innocent attitude, and let her be your own personal dose of daily inspiration.
Read more about this important topic by following the link to this article featured by positivehealthwellness.com.