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Teenage Girls and Body Image

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

We all know that childhood obesity is a problem in the United States. Weight issues have been linked to early onset heart disease, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and joint problems, not to mention teasing and discrimination at school. But the threat of obesity shouldn’t blind us to the beauty of our children, just as they are right now.

Our daughters are more vulnerable to weight issues than our sons. Girls are bombarded with images of stick-thin beauties, unrealistically proportioned dolls, early dieting advice, and popular media that equate thinness and physical beauty with worth. Although boys are endangered by obesity too, they are not so endangered as girls are by unrealistic expectations.

It’s easy for parents to get caught up in the hype. We want our kids to reflect well on us. We’d like them to be perfect. We don’t want our kids to embarrass us. And we don’t want people to think we let our girls get fat.

So we over-react.  We make our girl’s appearance a big deal. We fuss over slimming clothes. We buy her diet books. We give her grief any time she eats. We make fun of her, thinking somehow we are doing her a favor. “Better coming from me,” one mother said. “She might as well get used to it.”

It’s obvious this is abuse. It’s no surprise that most of the misery of being overweight is caused by unkind behavior. And, since eating makes us feel better – that’s why there’s “comfort food,” after all – heaping abuse on a chubby child doesn’t make her any slimmer. It only makes everything worse.

So, what to do? If your child – of any age – is overweight, how should you respond?

  1. Quality time. Spend time with your daughter doing fun stuff. Physical activity is great – walking, bicycling, doing yoga – but anything you both enjoy is fine. Could you both take up painting or garage sale-ing? Could you start a business? Turn off the television and do good things. Spend time with your daughter and you’ll send her the message, “I love you and I think you’re terrific.”
  2. Quality food. Give up junk food and don’t let it in the house. Yes, your daughter may find other places to get it, but if it’s not at home you won’t be put in the position of standing guarding over it. Food – junk food – won’t appear to be more important than your child.  And if everything at home is okay to eat, then eating at home is not a problem. This means, of course, that no one in your home eats junk food. Good.
  3. Quality support. If your child is dangerously overweight, get advice from your family doctor. But don’t take advice from your best friend, your worst friend, magazines, TV, and other unreliable, even dangerous sources.  Shut your ears to comments intended to hurt. Know that your child’s happiness means more than others’ opinions. Be there for your girl.

At one time, body image issues were limited to teens. These days elementary school children – even preschool girls – talk about diets and worry about their weight. This is unnatural and unhealthy. This is something we adults have done to our kids. It’s time to stop.

The best way to encourage health is to encourage life: “Does this life make me look fat?”

“No, my dear. This life makes you look pretty  and funny and very smart.”

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.