Ten-year-old Melissa looks at her image in the mirror and doesn’t like what she sees. Sound unusual? Not according to research that suggests girls as young as age 9 report dissatisfaction with their bodies.
Body image is based on perception, which may often be distorted. Because perception is subjective, the things that affect body image are individualistic. Dream Big, the Big Ten Conference’s program to promote young girls’ participation in sports, consulted with Claudia Rappl, Psy.D., with the Madison Center for Children, South Bend, Ind., to help parents and others understand how they can reinforce a positive body image in girls.
Girls tend to struggle with body image in far greater numbers than boys. Studies show that boys don’t focus as much on their body shape and size as do girls.
Children often mimic their parents’ beliefs and prejudices. “Anything, such as a comment a parent makes, can set a child in the wrong direction,” Rappl said. That’s why parents need to be aware of what they say, and how they react to their own and others’ body shape and size.
Rappl recommends a positive approach when talking with your daughter. “Anything you focus on or make a big deal about becomes even bigger. Focus on things that have nothing to do with her physical appearance, such as character, personality and talents. Focusing on the inner qualities is more helpful,” said Rappl.
A girl’s peers may affect her perception of body image. This is especially true as she reaches adolescence and peer groups become more important.
The media continue to be a major influence on body image. Television shows, magazines and advertisers often show thin and pretty actresses and models. How much impact the media have on perception may be debatable; however, there appears to be some influence. The book “Girl Power in the Mirror” recommends that girls take a reality test when viewing fashion magazines or TV shows that portray these beautiful and thin women. For example, girls should realize models have had professional assistance to look as good as they do. Does their beauty make them happier and healthier? Don’t let girls compare themselves to models and TV stars, because what they see isn’t reality.
Some attention to body size and shape is part of the normal growing process. As children reach adolescence, their bodies change, and children, especially girls, become more aware of how they look. Parents and teachers should realize some of these feelings are normal. But when a girl doesn’t want to participate in sports because she is unhappy with the way she looks in the uniform, this may signal a problem. Rappl suggests that avoidance and isolation are red flags of a poor body image. At that point, the child may need outside counsel.
Being in a positive and healthy relationship with someone helps girls maintain positive body images. The ability to talk with someone and feel accepted by that person, whether it’s a parent, teacher or coach, can heal a child and reinforce a strong body image. Self-esteem and self-control are key components to a healthy body image. For the most part, if a girl displays confidence and personal control, the likelihood of a positive body image is greater.