My daughter was crying one night. What was wrong? She was worried that she is fat.
I was shocked that a nine-year-old would worry about being fat. When I was nine, I was mostly concerned about playing with my dolls and coloring. I weighed 100 pounds by the time I was in fourth grade, but I never spared a thought about my weight. I swathed myself in the brightest colors and wildest patterns I could find. I worried about comfort, not fashion. I could see that I was bigger than many of my classmates, but the word “fat” never came up.
What has changed?
In my opinion, the media is the biggest influencer on body image, especially for children. As a child, I watched shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which mostly focused on puppets. While I did play with Barbies, which have impossible body shapes, I also played with American Girl dolls, which have a much more realistic body shape. When I started reading fashion magazines as a teenager, my views about my body changed. I became ashamed of being fat and went on a strict diet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the models in the magazine were extremely thin. They were also overwhelmingly white and tall with flawless skin and not a disability in sight.
My daughter doesn’t read magazines, but she has access to the Internet, which is even worse. While the Internet can give a voice to underrepresented groups, it can also give voice to hatred and intolerance. Also, young girls are seeing images of seemingly flawless people without realizing that most of these people are spending hours on makeup, lighting, and Photoshop. It’s hard even for an adult to stop and realize that the images online are not attainable in real life. If young girls are striving to look like these idealized images, they will fall short and feel miserable about themselves in the process.
Girls worrying about being fat is becoming common at a young age.
I just read an entire article about this issue in Parents magazine. My daughter is at a particularly tough age because many children experience a weight gain just before or at the beginning of puberty. This begins anywhere from 8 to 10 years old for girls. This is a perfectly normal part of growing up, but girls may see it as proof that they are getting fat. This happened to me as a child, and then a couple of years later, I had grown several inches taller without gaining any weight.
What can we do to improve our girls’ body image?
One thing we can do to help our girls is to show them positive models of body positivity. There are lots of books available on this topic at your local library, everything from picture books like Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor to nonfiction sources of information like Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls by Sonya Renee Taylor. There are also many media sources that are finally starting to show a wide range of body types. I also try to focus my children on shows that focus on skills, such as cooking competitions and home renovations, rather than shows that focus on beauty and glamour. I try to avoid clothes that send out negative messages or fit poorly.
As parents, we also need to reframe how we view our own bodies. If we call ourselves fat or go on extreme diets, our children will notice that. We are their role models. Instead, I talked to my daughter about how our goal should be to keep our bodies healthy. I pointed out how her body is strong enough to walk the dog, jump on the trampoline, and get through a long dance class. We eat lots of fruits and vegetables to get all the vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need. We have a set bedtime so our bodies get enough sleep each night.
Finally, we need to stop the stigma of being fat.
We need to end the idea that fat equals bad and thin equals good. So many children’s movies reinforce this stereotype by having thin, beautiful heroines and fat, ugly villains. I’m not really sure how to solve this deeply ingrained societal problem. For my part, I try to focus only on the positives for both myself and everyone else around me. We need to stop judging people based solely on their outward appearances. Instead of praising girls for their appearance, try praising them for their courage, hard work, compassion, or any of their other amazing traits. I frankly don’t care how my daughter looks as long as she grows up to be a happy, healthy, kind person.
Be aware that our young girls are worried about being fat. We need to talk to them about body positivity and be an example to them of what that looks like.
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