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BY: Dr. Nasreen Khatri

 Twelve year-old Amanda came home crying because a girl with a clipboard walked up to her at recess and told her she was fat.  Amanda was deemed fat by her classmate according to item #8 on The Fat Checklist:  «Cheeks jiggle when you run.»  Amanda immediately stopped running.  At recess.  In the gym.  At the park.  Everywhere Amanda is not alone.

 One study has shown that up to half of 11-17 year-old girls think they are overweight.

 With constant messages from peers, advertising, entertainment and social media, the pressure to live up to unrealistic physical standards can feel overwhelming to girls. Girls are likely to be exposed to more manipulated, altered media images of girls and women during the course of an average day than they are to real-life peers and family members.

 What is body image?

 Body image is the perception you have about how your body looks, how acceptable it is and how it “measures up” to society’s standards.  Having a negative body image can lead to feelings of shame and feeling “not good enough.”  Research has shown the correlation between a negative body image and the development of poor self-esteem and problems with mental health, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

 What causes negative body Image in girls?

 Negative body image is associated with several factors, including 1) peer pressure to conform to strict appearance standards, 2) media images that portray the ideal female form as very thin and perfectly proportioned and 3) family influences that over-emphasize weight and appearance in self and children.

 Tips to Develop Positive Body Image in Girls

 The good news is that there are many actions you can take to help your daughter develop a healthy body image.  

  1. Talk with your daughter. Having an open conversation about body image allows your daughter to 1) get the facts about her changing body (e.g., understand that weight gain is a normal part of puberty), 2) allows her to express any body image concerns and get reassurance from you that healthy bodies come in diverse shapes and sizes, which aids acceptance and self-respect.3) Encourages her to question the body standards and altered images portrayed in the media.
  2. Manage internet and social media time and activity. Though internet and social media can provide connection and learning, they also provides limitless opportunity for social comparison, evaluation and a platform to post edited, altered images and updates. On-line feedback ( “e.g., likes”) in the absence of in-person parental supports and guidance can create anxiety, both about body image and self-image in general. Set limits and communicate with your daughter about appropriate posts and sites.
  3. Establish healthy eating habits. Make healthy meals and snacks the norm and eliminate junk food choices as much as possible.
  4. Encourage exercise: Physical activity is great for physical and mental health, reduces stress, builds teamwork and leadership skills, as well as confidence. Sports send the message that girls’ bodies are valuable for what they can do, not how they look.
  5. Walk the talk. As with so much else, children learn what they live. They pick up on your feelings, attitudes and behaviours about food and exercise. Focusing on healthy eating and physical activity habits for the sake of health, not appearance, has a positive influence on children.
  6. Foster positive relationships. Supportive friends who value positive personal attributes (kindness, sharing, sense of humour) over physical ones reinforce healthy and balanced views about the body and self and aid positive personal development.

 These tips all have one thing in common.  They focus on behaviours we have some control over, such as diet, exercise and choosing what to value in ourselves and in others.  Focusing on what we can control has been shown to be related to good mental health, including a sense of mastery and confidence.