Raise your hand if you’ve ever been self-conscious about your body. Are you raising it? Yeah, me too. Many of us grew up believing that our worth was inextricably linked with our looks. We bought into the lie that the media sold us: your body is the defining characteristic of your worth. So it had better be perfect.
As teenagers, we struggled with shame surrounding our bodies. As adults, we obsess about the scale, and whether or not we can fit into the same size jeans we did as college students.
What if we could empower the next generation and change what they believe about their bodies? What if we could teach our daughters, nieces, and students that their worth is not dependent on their looks? What if we could make them believe that biceps and thick thighs are beautiful?
Well, dear women, we can. And it’s up to us to start modeling health differently.
The Body Image Problem
American media isn’t kind to girls and women. Most of us grew up in a society showing us stick-thin models as the ideal. Billboards, magazine covers, and even our own families taught us that our success as women depends not on our brains or abilities, but on how we look in a little black dress.
Consequently, some 86% of all women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Adolescent girls measure their self-worth not by their accomplishments, but by the number on the scale or the size on the clothing tag.
Body image issues can have physical and psychological impacts, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Over 13% of girls in one study reported struggling with an eating disorder before the age of 20.
Modeling Health for Our Girls
While the statistics are staggering, there is hope. As adults, we can change the narrative surrounding body image for girls and young women.
It all starts with modeling health for the younger generations. Seeing women who are strong – both physically and mentally – can help shift how these young people define beauty, self-worth, and their place in the world.
Here are a few ways you can start:
1. Work on Your Own Self-Image
Young people mirror what they see us do, not what they hear us say. That means we can tell them that self-confidence and body love is important all day long. But if we have negative self-images of our own bodies, that’s going to show through. The first step is to work on your own stuff and start to see your body as the badass machine it’s always been.
2. Model Healthy Eating (and avoid fad diets!)
Our daughters are watching us. If we’re always bouncing from one crash diet to the next, our girls are likely to do the same. Instead, discuss healthy nutrition. Show the young ladies in your life that eating nutritious food is an essential part of being healthy. Try not to label foods as “good” and “bad,” but instead talk about how protein, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains help our bodies be their best.
3. Model Fitness and Exercise
We believe that strong bodies are beautiful. But it’s up to us to model that for our girls and young women.
Not every girl likes to lift (I know, I don’t understand it either). That’s okay. But we should still encourage the girls in our lives to find a physical activity they love – not to lose weight, but to stay healthy and strong as they grow.
4. Focus on More Than Body Image
Words matter. Instead of complimenting your daughter on her hair, focus instead on that “A” she got on her science project. Instead of your niece’s clothing choices, talk instead about her hopes and dreams for the future. Instead of asking your younger cousin about the cute guys or girls in class, talk about consent and healthy relationships.
By shifting the focus off of how she looks and onto who she is, we can help her recognize that her worth doesn’t depend on her looks.
5. Call Out Media Distortions
Start the conversation about the unrealistic representations our girls are seeing. Draw attention to that way-over-Photoshopped magazine cover and talk about why those images are damaging to self-esteem. Place limits on social media use. Talk about the definition of beauty, and point out where the media gets it wrong.
How to Help Someone in Crisis
We are making progress towards body positivity, but we aren’t there yet. Unfortunately, our 24/7 online world continues to bombard our young women with harmful messaging. Even if you are the perfect role model, there’s still a chance the girls in your life will experience self-image issues.
If you believe someone in your life may have a severe mental or physical health issue related to body image, don’t wait. Talk to a trusted medical professional.