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Body Image and Teenage Girls

Posted Sep 22 2008 5:37pm
With Memorial Day coming up, J and I invited some close friends and their kids (who are also H's close friends) to come over to the house to swim and grill out. We've had a pool for about 6 years, and have great memories of the kids having a blast in the water while the parents get together at the same time. This year, the mom of one of H's best friends said her daughter doesn't want to swim. When I asked why, she said it was because she doesn't want to wear a bathing suit in public. That breaks my heart.

I remember eighth grade as being probably the most awkward year for me, appearance wise, and I can see that in H's friends as well. Not that they look bad, it's just the year that their bodies change drastically from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Their skin goes crazy, their bodies grow like never before, and clothes don't fit the same way that they have for most of their lives. H had difficulty with the size NUMBER, when she outgrew some of her jeans and we went shopping for new ones. This is a scary time for me, as a mom. I want to teach H how to eat right, exercise, and stay healthy, but I want to avoid things like this short video...





Despite fears of diminishing influence over their children's lives, research shows that parents continue to be essential role models, in both positive and negative ways. A 1991 Yale study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that women who began dieting at early ages were more likely to have daughters who would engage in binging or have problems with eating. These mothers were also more likely than other women to agree, when asked, that their daughters should lose weight.

"It's my impression that parents are not sending negative messages deliberately. They're doing it unconsciously," says Debra Franko, PhD, director of the Harvard Eating Disorders Unit at Harvard Medical School. "A mother might say, 'Oh, these pants used to fit last winter and now they're too tight.' The mother doesn't have a sense that she's saying anything wrong, but that statement, in combination with all the other messages a child is getting, might leave an impression that how you look means a great deal."

"I wouldn't tell a child that appearance doesn't matter, because in our society it does," says Rebecca Manley, director of the Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association. "But it's about looking at what (qualities or attributes) you do have, and focusing on those things."


So, what are we supposed to say as parents, when our daughters try to wear the jeans that "used to fit" and now are too tight? What do we say when they say they want to "firm up" a little for the swimsuit season? Should we give them advice on making good food choices, or portion sizes, or should we try to change the subject, and say they're fine as they are, go ahead and eat that jumbo sized muffin at Panera?

I know there is a a happy medium in there somewhere. I have been super-cautious as H grows up not to let her see ME obsess about weight, or exercise, although I'm sure she sees it subliminally. I've tried not to tell her that any food is BAD, but to balance out nutritious food with the sugary, fatty stuff that bombards them every day.

I read countless articles that say to teach our girls to "celebrate their bodies individual strengths and vitalities, regardless of dress size", and that "numbers on a scale or jean size or breadth of their hips must not determine their self-esteem". That's all well and good, but when every TV show, magazine article, and teen movie shows girls who look like barbie dolls, those ideals just kind of seem like empty words.

I hope H's friend changes her mind and swims on Memorial Day. I want to see her beautiful smile, laughing with her friends and enjoying an afternoon of fun.

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