“In America, we’re obsessed with how we look,” says Dr. Joan Lester, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Saint Joseph College. “Studies have found that by the fifth grade, girls are already beginning to diet, have already looked at themselves in the mirror and thought, ‘I am fat.’”
This is bad news for families because poor body image can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. We all want our children to be healthy and to feel good about themselves – but in a society torn between an emaciated feminine ideal and skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, how can parents help their daughters accept their bodies?
“Parents need to focus on healthy behavior rather than physical appearance,” says Harriet Mosatche, Ph.D, Vice-President of Program Collaborations and Initiatives for the Girl Scouts. “Parents and daughters can walk or do other kinds of physical activities together, putting the emphasis on feeling better, having more energy, being fit, not being out of breath. Exercising together fosters communication.”
A 2006 study from the Girl Scout Research Institute titled The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living, found that physically active girls are more satisfied with their weight and appearance than other girls, regardless of their weight. They’re also more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle and less likely to be overweight. Sports are key to feeling good; unfortunately, the same study showed that 23% of girls do not participate in sports because they feel that their bodies “do not look good.”
Part of the problem is the unrealistic and unhealthy female body idealized in the media. “Discourage TV, movies and other media that promote unhealthy body image,” suggests Susan Bartell, Ph.D, author of Dr. Susan’s Girls’ Only Weight-Loss Guide. “When you see those skinny models on TV, talk to your daughter about why they’re unhealthy and how they’re not taking care of themselves.”
Of course, the strongest role model your daughter has is you. When a mother talks about dieting or criticizes her own body, she sends a dangerous message. Likewise, fathers should refrain from commenting on women’s bodies; a sincere compliment to his daughter can work wonders.
Both parents can encourage self-acceptance by focusing on a healthy lifestyle for the whole family. Thin may be in now, but families are forever.