Our Little Girls at Risk: 5 Ways to Avoid Eroding their Self Image

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Image via Freddycat1 Flickr

Whether you are driving around town, tuning in for a few minutes of your favorite morning show, or sitting down with a magazine while the kids nap, chances are you are seeing the same message over and over again: Eat less, exercise more, and focus on whole foods. While I can’t fault the message, I worry that young girls are only hearing a small piece of it.

Kids tend to internalize the messages they hear and see in their environments. When a parent is hyper-focused on weight loss, for instance, kids internalize that thinner is better. In print, in the media, and even in their own homes, young girls are hearing that less is more and overweight is bad. But they’re not necessarily being given the fine details.

With the super skinny dolls on the market (have you seen what they’ve done to poor Strawberry Shortcake?) and child actors that resemble dolls, it’s a confusing time to be a young girl.

It’s no wonder that body image issues are cropping up at a younger age these days, sometimes even as young as preschool.

It’s up to parents to educate girls about healthy eating, healthy body image, and developing a healthy sense of self.

toddler reading

Compliment carefully:

I’m the first to admit that I love a nice compliment on my appearance. Positive words will always give this tired mom a little lift. And I certainly dish out the compliments on the zany fashion choices made by my kids. But we have to be sure to compliment more than just appearance. It shouldn’t be about size and shape. It’s essential to compliment personality, skill acquisition, prosocial behavior, and humor. When we compliment the whole child we send the message that every little piece plays an important role. 

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healthy eating toddlers

Teach healthy eating:

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Check in with your good friend Google, and find some age appropriate visual aids that demonstrate digestion, converting food to energy, and how to build a healthy plate. Talk about the importance of listening the signals the body sends when you’re hungry versus full. And, by all means, start using an eating rainbow. When each family member is responsible for eating the rainbow, they learn to increase their fruit and vegetable intake.

food choice woman

Model healthy eating:

It’s not enough to simply put the broccoli on the table; we have to actually model healthy eating. We need to talk about the choices we’re making and vary our diets to show our children that options are good. And we need to indulge once in a while too. So go ahead and eat that ice cream cone, mamas! 

{ MORE: Talking to Your Preschooler About the News }

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Media diet:

There are a lot of mixed messages in the media today. Love yourself but worry about your weight. Eat healthy foods, but ask your mom to buy this chocolate milk. When you add on child/tween actors who are emaciated and shows that tackle mature issues, it can be very confusing for young girls. I’m all for a little TV time, but choose shows carefully. Watch TV with your daughter and discuss the issues that arise. Talk about the differences between fantasy and reality and point out the unhealthy look of an emaciated body. Be honest.

mother daughter talking

Open communication:

Try to avoid shutting down or minimizing comments such as, “I’m fat.” Seize the opportunity to discuss it. Ask questions. Find out where she’s coming from and what she views as the perfect size. Be open and honest with your child so that she knows that she can come to you with these concerns. Confront the topic directly and often, and seek help immediately if you see signs of disordered eating.

Has your daughter shared concerns about body image? How do you teach healthy eating?

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What do you think?

Our Little Girls at Risk: 5 Ways to Avoid Eroding their Self Image

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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5 comments

  1. Profile photo of Canups Canups says:

    My oldest is 11 and she is already wanting to diet and our home is a Healthy Eating home because of our Terminally Ill child.

  2. Profile photo of Canups Canups says:

    I have 5 daughters. Ages 11, 10, 6, 5, and 8 weeks. They are all built different and I pray I teach them beauty is within!

  3. Profile photo of Nicole Nicole says:

    Lets see, is being thin harming your kid (baring an emotional problem leading to bulimia or anorexia which is actually about control over one’s life and NOT about media exposure at all)? No… does, however, being obese harm you? Why yes, actually it does and for the rest of your life even if you lose the weight. Healthy weight, activity level and eating habits are ALWAYS better than stuffing yourself full of donuts every day while you sit on the couch watching Wendy. I think the message that doing those things are bad for you is GREAT. In case no one has noticed… most people in America are FAT.

  4. Profile photo of rapa rapa says:

    This is a major concern for me. Although, I only have an 18 month old son (presently), it angers me to see these photo shopped images and liquid diets. I agree that healthy eating should be encouraged, but even older women I know stop eating or eat A LOT less to achieve their weight goals. If the older women are being so brutally pressured by what we are seeing, I can only imagine with sadness what younger girls/teens are dealing with.

  5. Profile photo of Grace Grace says:

    i agree its up to parents to keep their children developing in the right direction

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