- Females of all ages struggle with body image issues.
- Girls as young as age 9 report body dissatisfaction.
- By age 60, a large percentage of women are considering plastic surgery.
Dear Dr. G.,
I hope you can help me. I think I have a developing problem in my family. I have two teenage boys and a twelve-year-old girl. I would say that my teen boys appear to have pretty good self-esteem. They are active boys who have nice friends and lots of activities in their lives. My twelve-year-old daughter has seemed happy with herself up until recently. Recently, I have overheard her telling her best friend that her thighs and legs are too big. I am surprised about this because my daughter seems too young to be criticizing her body. I am also worried that she might be on the road to an eating disorder. She is not dieting but these negative comments are bothering me. I am not quite sure what to do and what not to do. I am confused and worried.
A Concerned Mother
Dear Concerned Mother,
I am very pleased that you are seeking some guidance. Sadly, most females begin to dislike their bodies at some point. Sadly, according to the National Organization of Women (NOW) 2023 data, 53 percent of American girls are reported to be disappointed with their bodies.
Alarmingly, 46 percent of girls as young as 9-11 are sometimes or very often on diets. The percentage increases to 78 percent by age seventeen. The college years are a particularly difficult time for young women: 70 percent of college women report feeling bad about their bodies, particularly following social media comparisons with peers and celebrities. By age 60, approximately 60 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies and 43.7 percent reported contemplating plastic surgery.
This body unhappiness follows females throughout their lives. These are staggeringly high numbers. It makes sense, though, because if you think about all of the females you know, you will likely find that most of them discuss body dissatisfaction.
I am providing you with these numbers to let you know that it is not unusual for girls as young as your daughter to begin to experience body dissatisfaction. Your daughter's comments are a cause for concern.
You are probably aware that body dissatisfaction is often associated with depression, anxiety, and the onset of eating disorders. It is actually wonderful that you want to intervene early before an eating disorder develops.
Once an eating disorder takes hold, it is difficult to get released from its grip. Eating disorders can rob one of good emotional and physical health.
In an effort to help you with your daughter, I have five suggestions that will help you and every other parent.
1. As a parent, please try to be a good role model. You can do this in many ways. Please refrain from criticizing your own body and/or asking if you look fat. I know that it is not your intention to teach problematic behaviors, but in this case, you are.
Your daughters are watching you and you are among their most important role models. Talk instead about how your body serves you, for example, how your strong legs help you run faster or improve your tennis game. Also, consider mentioning your health and connect this to self-care and healthy nourishment of your body.
2. Let your daughter know that it is more than fine for her to express positive feelings about her body. Help her break the girl code where females are seen as bragging if they express body comfort. And, yes, I have witnessed how difficult it is for girls to speak positively about themselves around others.
3. Give your daughter permission to not speak negatively about herself. This is very much related to No. 2 but is slightly different. This may be seen as simple but it is not. Here you are giving your daughter her power back.
My experience is that females feel compelled to devalue themselves, particularly around their peers.
4. Encourage your daughter not to compare herself to others. Limit social media access to the best of your ability. Social media makes comparisons to peers and celebrities easy and as we all know, everyone starts to feel worse about themselves.
5. Provide your daughter and your family with positive mantras. I know several families who have benefited from posting positive messages on Post-it notes in highly frequented areas of the home. Consider something like, "Be gentle with yourself," "Treat yourself kindly" or some other variants of these comments.
Working on body image will not be an easy task but the effort will be worth it. Learning that the body should be valued is an invaluable lesson that should start while girls are young.
National Organization For Women. (2023) National Organization For Women NOW. United States