Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Shaping girls' body images in a positive way

More than half of 12- to 23-year old girls and women are unhappy with their bodies and want to lose weight. Rima Himelstein, M.D., offers advice on how parents can talk to their teen about body image.

Shaping girls’ body images in a positive way

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Dictionaries define “body image” as a subjective idea of one’s physical appearance based on self-observation and other people’s reactions. In other words, it’s what a person thinks of his or her own body.  Nowadays, more than ever, many of our teens’ body images are surprisingly negative. 

Models of “perfection.” The media play a large role in shaping young women’s ideas about how they should look. They generally show underweight women as the ideal body type. Often the images are unhealthy, and difficult—if not impossible—for most females to achieve. The average female fashion model today is 25 percent thinner than the national average weight. These images can lead our girls to think that their own bodies are not attractive or acceptable and that their value depends on how they look.

Teens can access these images 24/7. A national survey found that 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of 7-1/2 hours a day using entertainment media.  Make sure you’re sitting down for this statistic: the American Academy of Pediatrics found that by the time students begin college, they have watched more than 25,000 hours of television–more time than they spent in school! 

Here’s the shape of things in 2013:

  • More than half of 12- to 23-year old girls and women are unhappy with their bodies and want to lose weight.
  • One third of high school students think they are overweight when they are not.
  • Between 5 million to 10 million females have eating disorders that harm their health.  
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Know what your daughters may be striving for.  The latest fad in teen body image is the “thigh gap."  It refers to a space between the inner thighs when standing with legs together. Even though these gaps are present in very thin slender models and actresses, some teens are trying to achieve it through weight loss.  

Some girls are speaking up for themselves. One teenage girl proved that you don’t have to be famous to influence others. Julia Bluhm was in the news at age 14 when her petition signed by 46,000 people challenged Seventeen magazine to “commit to printing one unaltered—real—photo spread per month.” And she became a regular blogger for SPARK, a project that unites girls and young women from 13 to 22 and national organizations to fight the sexualization of females in the media. You go, girls!

What can we do to help our pre-teen and teen girls build a healthy body image?

  • Step one: talk with your daughter and ask her how she feels about herself. 
  • Make sure your daughter understands that weight gain is a part of her normal pubertal development.
  • Watch television with your daughter and discuss the media images you see.
  • Be positive: encourage your daughter to focus on eating a healthy diet and staying physically active.
  • Make sure that plenty of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available and then let her decide what she wants to eat.  No hovering and no negative comments!
  • Compliment your daughter on her talents, accomplishments, and personal values.

Truth be told: the entertainment media are not all bad.  One example of the positive influence of the media is a popular song by Christina Aguilera called Beautiful:

“I am beautiful no matter what they say
Words can't bring me down
I am beautiful in every single way ...”

A song worth singing. And it’s not just a “girl thing.” Our teenage boys are also feeling the negative. That’s for another blog …


Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »

Rima Himelstein, M.D. Crozer-Keystone Health System
About this blog
The Healthy Kids blog is your window into the latest news, research and advice around children's health. Learn more about our growing list of contributors here.

If you have questions about your child's health, ask them here.

Anna Nguyen Healthy Kids blog Editor
Stephen Aronoff, M.D., M.B.A. Temple University Hospital
Peter Bidey, D.O. Medical Director of Family Medicine at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Christopher C. Chang, M.D., Ph.D Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Jefferson Medical Colg
Mario Cruz, M.D. St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Drexel University College of Medicine
Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D. Lead Psychologist - The Anxiety Behaviors Clinic, CHOP
Gary A. Emmett, M.D. Director of Hospital Pediatrics at TJU Hospital & Pediatrics Professor at Thomas Jefferson Univ.
Lauren Falini Bariatric exercise physiologist, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
Hazel Guinto-Ocampo, M.D. Nemours duPont Pediatrics/Bryn Mawr Hospital
Rima Himelstein, M.D. Crozer-Keystone Health System
Jessica Kendorski, PhD, NCSP, BCBA-D Associate Professor in School Psychology/Applied Behavior Analysis at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Anita Kulick President & CEO, Educating Communities for Parenting
Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA VP for Programs & Research for Prevent Child Abuse America
Beth Wallace Smith, R.D. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
W. Douglas Tynan, Ph.D. Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Jefferson Medical Colg
Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., Ph.D Scientific Director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention
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