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.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 18, 2006
6 min read

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 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.

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.

To divert attention from media-driven images of being super skinny, some parents engage their daughters in sports. But it doesn't always work.

"Some athletic pursuits, especially those like ice skating, which emphasize that what you look like is important, might put girls more at risk [for problems related to body image, like eating disorders]," says Sarah Murnen, PhD, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College.

But Murnen's research also has shown that girls who participate in sports that don't emphasis leanness are likely to feel better about themselves. "Perhaps sports give them a way of defining themselves that doesn't involve appearance," Murnen suggests.

Unfortunately, plenty of sports do emphasize lightness and leanness, and they link performance to appearance. Countless dancers, gymnasts, ice skaters, and other athletes have succumbed to pressures -- from coaches, peers, or their own high expectations -- and ended up feeling inadequate or, worse, with eating disorders that risk their health and make them too weak to compete.

Certain aspects of sports programs can offer parents clues about whether they are prone to boost or lower their daughters' self-esteem. Parents should observe the type of messages coaches send to their athletes about body image; the level of competition vs. camaraderie found among teammates; and their own daughter's attitude toward the activity.

If parents suspect that their daughters' eating or exercising habits, albeit intended to drive peak performance, may in fact be jeopardizing it, they may want to tell them so in objective terms. "Explain that if you're running on empty and have depleted your fat stores, the next thing you're going to do is break down muscle mass," Gittes suggests. "Get them to understand the processes that are going on."

By the time most girls reach their teens, they've consumed years' worth of messages about what a female body should look like -- and not just from the media.

"Mothers play a tremendous role in their daughters' self-assurance and potential to develop eating disorders," Gittes tells WebMD.

Girls take to heart what their mothers say about bodies: their own, their daughters, those of strangers and celebrities. They notice when their mothers exercise obsessively, diet constantly, or make derogatory comments about their own appearance. That should come as no surprise, as mothers are a girl's first and, often, most influential role model.

Fathers play an equally influential role in shaping their daughters' self-image. "A daughter learns how to relate to men by the way she relates to her father," says Carleton Kendrick EdM, LCSW, social worker and co-author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's.

That's why it's critical that fathers check what they say to their daughters about their physical appearance. "There needs to be a pause where you say, 'What will this comment do? What's my intention when I tell my daughter she should lose some weight?'" Kendrick suggests.

Equally important -- and extremely obvious to girls -- is the way in which fathers perceive all females, not just their daughters. To that end, Kendrick urges fathers to consider the following questions: "Can your daughter see you watching Internet porn? Are Playboy and Hustler hanging around? How do you react at halftime when the cheerleaders come on?"

Kendrick urges all fathers: "Pay attention to how you respond to the media images of sexy, thin women because your daughter is listening."

Given America's obsession with obesityobesity, coupled with the unattainable images of celebrities who are often seen as simultaneously ultra-thin and buxom, girls may have a tough time arriving at what it means to have a healthy body image. Some experts say it's better to show girls what a healthy body image means rather than to tell them.

"When you say healthy, it immediately implies something that's not enjoyable," says Adrienne Ressler, MA, LMSW, national training director for The Renfrew Center, a national eating disorder treatment facility.

Instead, she attempts to deflate the image of the super-thin model in the mind of the adoring adolescent girl. "I ask a girl things like: 'I wonder if she can still get her period if she's that thin?' or 'I wonder how much of her day is taken up thinking about how she'll maintain that weight?'" Ressler tells WebMD.

She also urges adolescent girls to momentarily leave the malls and the fashion magazines behind and head to a park. "I ask them to look at the young children there, and to realize the joy of little kids of all shapes and sizes moving their bodies. They all look so alive," Ressler tells WebMD. "We need to return to more of that."