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Helping Girls With Body Image

The media bombard girls with images of super-thin models. Learn how parents can be the most powerful force to help foster a healthy self-image for their daughters.

WebMD Feature

For too many American girls, being "model thin" is a very real aspiration, and it starts at a shockingly young age. In one recent study, researchers found that TV programs focused on appearance are swaying the self-esteem of girls as young as 5.

It's no wonder. Bombarded with countless media images of thin female models and actresses who look beautiful by modern American standards and appear happy, many girls -- including the youngest and most impressionable -- view them as role models. It doesn't help that real-life role models, mothers in particular, too often openly obsess about their own weight; that male role models, like dads and older brothers, make clear their preference for thinner women; and that an overwhelming percentage of girls' clothing features body-hugging, midriff-baring styles most comfortably worn by the ultra-thin.

At WebMD, we talked to experts to find out which factors influence girls' ideas about body image and what parents can do to help their daughters develop a healthy attitude about their own bodies. Here's what we learned.

The Power of Media Images

The average teen girl gets about 180 minutes of media exposure daily and only about 10 minutes of parental interaction a day, says Renee Hobbs, EdD, associate professor of communications at Temple University.

In an attempt to emulate the countless media images they view, girls often take drastic measures. Many end up with very low self-esteem; some with dangerous eating disorders. "We're seeing girls at younger ages starting to be dissatisfied with their bodies, proactively trying to change them, and feeling like they need to emulate something different than what their bodies can do," says Elissa Gittes, MD, a pediatrician in the division of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

So what's a parent to do? Hide every magazine, turn off every TV, and ban Barbie dolls -- those incredibly thin yet curvaceous toys favored by girls as young as 3? Banning media exposure altogether may backfire. "It only creates the forbidden fruit phenomenon," Hobbs tells WebMD.

Parents Should Get Involved

Experts suggest that parents' energy is better spent getting their daughters to look at and think critically about the unrealistic way the media portrays girls and women. This is most likely to occur if mom or dad is engaged in the process, too.

"Co-viewing [the act of parents watching TV or viewing the Internet with their daughters] allows parents and their daughters to talk about those patterns of [physical] representation," Hobbs says.

When parents learn firsthand how their daughters perceive celebrities, it can lead to a lesson in media literacy, explains Hobbs. That's why she and her research team at Temple University created a web site called My Pop Studio. Visitors to the site, which is targeted at adolescent girls, can actually "create" their own celebrity images based on a host of physical attributes.

Results have proved disturbing. According to Hobbs, the majority of girls who engage in this online activity make themselves over to appear thin, white, and blonde -- even girls whose appearance differs substantially from that "ideal" Image. Seeing the skewed self-images their daughters create gives parents a starting place for dialogue about body image as portrayed by the media. When parents can help their daughters recognize how unrealistic these images are -- airbrushed to trim tummies and hide blemishes -- girls may begin to feel better about the way they look, flaws and all.

Brush Up on Beauty

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