Raising body positive girls

Charlotte Markey on writing 'The Body Image Book for Girls'.

People are often surprised to learn that my latest book is a book about body image for pre-teen girls. Academics don’t typically write for general audiences, and are even less likely to write for young audiences. But after studying girls’ body image for most of my adult life, it felt like it was time to bring evidence-based information directly to girls. After all, there are books about puberty and even sex aimed at young readers. Why not a comprehensive book about body image?

As a scientist, researcher, and psychologist I have not received formal training in how to write a book for girls, so I asked my colleagues, friends and relatives to read drafts. I also interviewed, ran focus groups, and talked with pre-teen girls about the book’s topics every chance I got. What surprised me as I worked on The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless was the number of adults who reported learning valuable lessons from the book, lessons that they felt would serve both them and the girls in their lives.

When you spend years immersed in a project, it can be hard to summarise the result; it feels a bit like having to identify your favourite child.  But below are some lessons derived from the book that may aid adults and help them to encourage body positivity in the girls in their lives.   

Talk with your girls

Most of us adults didn’t learn how to have adaptive conversations about our bodies while we were growing up. There aren’t a lot of models for healthy conversations either. However, we’ve all engaged in unhealthy conversations about “how much weight we gained over the holidays” or “how fat we feel” or “how we need to lose weight for that upcoming wedding.” Perhaps the first thing we need to do is stop making these maladaptive comments, for our own sake and our girls’, and start being a bit more positive. Although “body talk” is often a source of bonding among female friends, it’s been shown to ultimately bring people down and serve no positive purpose.   

Thinking and talking about our bodies in terms of what they do instead of merely how they look has been shown to leave us feeling more satisfied with our bodies. In fact, in research that directed participants to either think about their bodies’ functionality or their bodies’ appearance, a focus on functionality led to considerations of physical resilience, meaningful activities, and enjoyable experiences. In contrast, focusing on physical appearance led people to think of their bodies as a “project” that required work and to make unfavorable comparisons between their own bodies and others.  

Help girls question beauty ideals

Where do beauty ideals (and beauty products, plans, and potions intended to help us achieve these ideals) come from? The fact that these ideals change across time and location indicates that they are primarily socially constructed. In other words, there is no imperative to adopt them and there is good reason to teach girls to question beauty ideals.

Attending to our physical appearances is not inherently unhealthy or problematic; in many cases, these are socially accepted hygiene practices. For example, washing our hair may be viewed as an adaptive appearance investment. However, the amount of time that women spend on their appearance – nearly an average of an hour per day or two weeks per year – may hinder them in achieving other goals. Further, some beauty ideals may sanction oppressive behaviors, leaving girls and women wearing uncomfortable clothes and shoes and afraid to participate in activities that may negatively impact their appearance.  Ultimately, we want to teach girls that they are so much more than how they look.  

Support girls’ development of a healthy relationship with food

So much of how we feel about our bodies is derived from what we put into them. Our culture teaches us to experience guilt if we indulge in fried foods or sweet treats. We tend to feel virtuous when we eat salad or drink kale smoothies. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.  

There are benefits to developing a less emotional relationship with food. In fact, both emotional eating and restrained eating (i.e. trying not to eat certain foods) are associated with higher body weights and poorer psychological health than is intuitive eating. Intuitive eaters attend to their bodies’ hunger and satiety cues and refrain from labeling foods as “good” and “bad.” They avoid restrictive eating practices (which typically lead to overeating) and don’t devote unnecessary mental space to food choices.

We want our girls to not only enjoy food, but to nourish their mental and physical growth by engaging in healthy eating. We don’t want this to feel oppressive; instead, we want girls to view eating well as a form of self-care.

Remind girls to lift each other up

So many of the girls that I’ve talked with in writing The Body Image Book for Girls wanted to talk about friendships and the social hierarchies in their schools. Not surprisingly, there was some consensus that pretty, slender girls are more popular. There are also heartbreaking stories of girls feeling bullied about their weight. What’s especially unfortunate is that this bullying sometimes comes with the pretense that it is intended to be “helpful.”  

There is no research that I’m aware of to suggest that bullying, teasing, or shaming another person is conducive to positive behavior changes on their part. What does result can be life-long struggles with self-esteem, depression and disordered eating. What we want our girls to understand is that it is essential that they develop self-compassion and compassion for others. In treating themselves and each other well, they will be more apt to adopt habits that sustain their mental and physical health.

Set a good example

Ultimately, although our girls may not appear to listen to anything we say, they see us. Whatever the role you play in girls’ lives – as a parent, teacher, aunt, coach – should serve as motivation to improve your own body image and, indirectly, girls’ body images. This isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, many days I feel as though I’m still just “faking it” with the hopes of one day “making it.”

When we adults keep the conversation about our bodies positive and focused on functionality, challenge beauty ideals, manifest a healthy relationship with food, and support one another, we are showing girls that they can do all of this, too.

Charlotte H. Markey, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology

Health Sciences Center

Rutgers University @ Camden



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