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Girls and Body Image

— U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Your daughter may have outgrown the nursery rhyme that describes her as “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Instead, she might be worried about all of that sugar making her fat. Some studies suggest that body image ideas begin in children as young as 3.1 But parents—particularly moms—can have a positive impact on their daughters’ body image when they model healthy attitudes toward their own bodies.

The Media’s Influence

Media images—TV shows, movies, and music showcasing rail-thin models, actresses, and singers—promote underweight women, which can affect what girls think about their own bodies. Even though most fashion models weigh 23 percent less than the average female,2 many young girls idealize this very thin body type. In one study, most girls (70 percent) reported that the appearance of models in magazines influences their image of a perfect female body, and 47 percent wanted to lose weight because of the magazine pictures.3

Parents’ Influence

It’s not just the media that influences young girls. Think about it—how many times have you said, “I need to go on a diet”? Now, think about how many times you may have said it in front of your daughter. Whether or not they are aware of it, parents and caregivers set the example for the eating patterns of their children. Being a role model is more than just what you eat—and it is more than who you admire on TV or in the neighborhood. Children learn how to eat by listening to and watching the adults around them.

Girls with mothers who reported recent dieting or who had a family history of being overweight were more likely to have ideas about dieting, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.4 At the extreme end, doctors are seeing girls as young as 5 or 6 who have eating disorders. Experts say that these young children, mostly girls, are following the patterns set by their mothers.5

What To Do?

The cycle can be frustrating—knowing if a child is overweight may be hard for a parent to judge, but too much talk about “dieting” can be negative as well. So, how do you establish healthy eating patterns for you and your family and help your daughter form a positive body image?

You can help your daughter establish and maintain healthy eating patterns and a positive body image while you improve or maintain your own positive body image.

  • Let your daughter know that weight gain is a normal part of growth, especially during puberty.
  • Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape.
  • Let your daughter make choices about food. Offer her healthy and nutritious meals and snacks.
  • Praise your child for her many activities, talents, and accomplishments.
  • Watch TV with your daughter and discuss the images you see.
  • Encourage your daughter to get regular exercise—try going on a family walk together.

Also, keep the lines of communication open with your child. Let her know she can come to you with any questions or concerns about her body, and guide her toward healthy choices. Doing so will help your daughter build not only a strong body, but a strong body image.

Conversation Starters

What do you think of the way girls and women look on TV and in magazines? How often do you think about your weight?
How do you feel about your body?

Additional Resources

WomensHealth.gov. Body Image and Your Kids: Your Body Image Plays a Role in Theirs, last referenced 10/23/2006.

KidsHealth. Even Before Puberty, Kids Harbor Body Image Concern, last referenced 10/23/2006.

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