Blog Post

Are We Sabotaging Our Daughters’ Body Image?

54722899_sCommentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

A new book by psychologist and body image researcher Renee Engeln says we all need to spend less time talking about beauty in order to “put it in its place” behind other more important matters – and mothers, grandmothers and aunts need to quit complaining about their bodies in front of young women!

In an article appearing on the Daily Mail, Engeln writes about the latest research on young women and body image which is contained in her new book, Beauty Sick.

“The research is sobering," Engeln writes. "Girls now start thinking about their ideal body at a shockingly early age. One study suggests 34 per cent of five-year-old girls deliberately restrict what they eat at least ‘sometimes’. And 28 per cent of these girls say they want their bodies to look like the women in films and on TV.”

Engeln, who is a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University where she directs the Body and Media Lab, says that between the ages of five and nine, 40 percent of girls are already wishing they were thinner. And those numbers only get worse as they age.

This is due to part to the media’s presentation of unrealistic beauty standards that has had vastly negative effects on young girls. But there's another even more potent source of damage to the body sensitivities of girls – and this one is typically found in her own home.

Her mother.

45838103 - little child , girl age 4 , examining her weight.A case in point is a girl named Stephanie who confessed to hating her body, but not because of looking at magazines full of airbrushed women or playing with Barbie dolls. It was the voices of her grandmother, mother and aunts who turned her off to her own beauty.

“They spent a lot of time criticizing their bodies,” the 39-year-old mother-of-two recalls. “It was common to hear, ‘Oh no! My thighs touch!’ They’d talk about how they were ‘working on’ their own body. Or what they didn’t like about another woman’s body. With my mum it was particularly her upper arms. If I had a pound for the number of times she complained about how her upper arms looked when I was a child, I’d be a millionaire.’’

All of us need to ask ourselves how often we speak negatively about our bodies when young girls could be listening.

“All too often we have conversations about our physical flaws, bonding as we moan about weight gain or wrinkles, but forgetting who is listening.”

Even though women being negative about their bodies, or mothers going on diets, is nothing new, this problem is compounded by how much more body image is under attack in the world today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

“From the countless images of perfected, unreal female beauty we’re bombarded with in advertising, film and TV, and social media,” Engeln writes, girls are bombarded by impossible ideals. “The current perfect body requires women to have large breasts and a curvy bottom — yet no detectable cellulite is allowed.”

And, more recently, “the requirement to have visibly toned muscles has added to this preposterous standard — it’s near impossible to achieve healthily.”

Not surprisingly, Engeln uncovered research at one university that analyzed data from modeling agency websites where 80 percent of the models were underweight.

What’s worse, “Technology routinely makes an already impossible ideal even more unattainable by digitally manipulating images — whether that’s whittling away the waist of an already tiny model, or airbrushing visible ribs and collar bones to give the impression that a seriously underweight body can still be healthy.”

The worst offender is mainstream advertising where models in bikinis are selling weight-loss shakes and airbrushed models are promoting the latest eyeshadow shades.

“ . . . [T]he pictures might as well be screaming: ‘I am designed to fill you with self doubt!’” Engeln writes.

Scientists who analyzed 25 studies found that looking at ‘thin ideal’ images leads to increased body dissatisfaction for women. They’re also linked to depression and anger, as well as decreased self-esteem, especially among adolescents, she continues.

girl makeupSocial media is another culprit where, according to one study, girls ages 13 to 34 spend six or more hours a day perusing sites where pictures are carefully chosen from sometimes hundreds of shots, then edited and filtered. Even though content posted by friends isn’t selling you anything, “it’s still shaping your reality and values," Engeln said.

In fact, one study of 100 British woman found that of those women who spent time looking a fashion magazines, a craft website or Facebook, those who spent time on Facebook reported feeling the most negative.

So what do we do about about it?

Engeln has found that even teaching girls media literacy – which means instructing them on how advertising images don’t reflect real life women – isn't helping.

“The problem is that viewing images to critique them requires you to pay attention to them, and by then the damage is done," she writes.

“If we want to improve girls’ physical and mental health, we don’t need to talk about beauty in a different way, we need to spend less time talking about it full stop.”

Of course, beauty will always matter to the human mind so it will never be totally irrelevant, but appearance doesn’t have to matter so much.

“Just as we can choose to make sugar less available to children, we can choose to make beauty concerns less available to our brains. It’s about putting beauty in its place behind the other things that are more important.”

Instead, focus on the things that matter more than appearance, such as outside interests and inner qualities.

This is the tactic used in the new Young Women of Grace program for girls ages 13-17. Instead of focusing on physical beauty, the program introduces girls to the dignity and importance of women in God’s plan for the world and how her unique feminine genius can help to “save the peace of the world.” Girls discover a much broader vision for themselves than just what can be seen in a mirror.

“She is so much more than her good looks and she does not have to dominate the working world to be ‘strong,” said one young participant in the program. “I can now challenge the media and society who try to force us to believe this.”

Engeln also suggests that mothers encourage their daughters to wear clothes that “won’t take up brain space.” In other words, wearing skirts so short they spend the whole day tugging down their hems or blouses so low cut they are constantly trying to cover themselves. How can they enjoy life when their attention is almost entirely focused on their appearance?

Another suggestion is to swap negative references to the body with positive ones.

“In one study I encouraged a group of women to fill in the blanks of a set of statements that included: ‘My body helps me to...’, ‘I use my arms to...’, ‘I love that my body can...’ Afterwards they were asked questions about body satisfaction. They were far happier than a second group of women who had to complete sentences that encouraged them to focus on the most attractive, most complimented on, or sexiest part of their body.”

If we want our girls to grow up strong and confident, we need to guide them into more positive territory, and that's an effort that must begin with us!

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