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How We Can Help Young Girls Develop Positive Body Image

To avoid contributing to a young girl’s negative feelings about their body image, you cannot — I repeat, cannot — let them hear you criticizing your own body, or anyone else’s for that matter. Many parents subconsciously project their own body image issues on their children through what they think are just benign, innocuous comments about themselves or other people. For example, the girl whose mother is often making judgmental comments on another woman’s body, clothing or accessory choices (as girls are socialized to do) is probably going to grow up doing the exact same thing her mom does. This is toxic and just fosters an unhealthy rivalry, comparison, resentment and competition between women.

This has got to stop. Young girls are not born putting down and criticizing other girls; it’s a learned behavior. It might appear to be harmless, even beneficial, because putting someone else down can make us feel better about ourselves in the short-term, right? But it’s possible to feel good about yourself without it being at the expense of another. So, instead of making snarky remarks about other women’s appearances or outfit choices, compliment them (it doesn’t even have to be to their face). You’ll be surprised at how awesome paying a genuine compliment to someone can make you feel. Cruel commentary about another woman usually stems from one’s own jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, but try teaching yourself and the young girl(s) in your life that another woman’s beauty is not the absence of your own.

Also, what is the very first thing that comes to most people’s minds when we want to praise a young woman? That she’s pretty or beautiful, of course. Compliments on appearance can perpetuate the societal norm that the female body is made to be looked at, judged and evaluated. If that’s your go-to compliment, you need to come up with something else, ASAP. Every girl and every woman possesses other positive qualities that are completely unrelated to what they look like, yet we are so conditioned to focus on their appearance first and foremost that we can barely think of anything else. Thus, the girl who primarily receives compliments on her appearance inevitably grows up with the message that she is lovable and valuable because of her attractiveness, and that her worth lies solely in her looks. She needs to believe she has a lot more to offer.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever tell a girl she is beautiful; just don’t let it be the main event. Don’t forget about other acts, such as intelligence, charisma, wit, humor, determination, strength, integrity, talent, passion, resilience, creativity, spontaneity, empathy, loyalty or vivacity. I know it’s hard with girls who are very young and have yet to develop a distinctive personality, but the older a girl is, the more these sorts of qualities will become blatantly obvious, so you really have no excuse.

Overall, just be mindful of what you say around them, as it can have a lasting impact. Young girls (and boys, of course) are like little sponges; they will absorb everything you tell them, especially negative things. Talk about healthy eating and exercise without mentioning weight or appearance. Don’t use the word “fat” in a derogatory way. Don’t compulsively consume media that is obsessed with looking “perfect” — women’s magazines, reality TV, etc. Remind them they do not have to be “pretty.” Fashion blogger Erin McKean wrote a post back in 2006 about how “You Don’t Have to Be Pretty.” She says women do not “owe” prettiness to anyone, because it should not be the rent we pay to exist in the world as women. I really wish someone would have helped me develop a positive body image when I was younger. But I don’t think people were as aware of the damage that body shaming can do to a young psyche. Even at 32, I’m still trying to recover from the body dysmorphia I developed as a result.

Photo by Guille Pozzi on Unsplash