How to promote a healthy body image in girls

Girl looking into the mirror

Credit: Jaume Escofet,

Girls are becoming body conscious at a very early age, with movies, makeup, the internet, and even their toys. How do we protect our girls from being bombarded by images in the media?

The long-term answer is to look at how much television is in their lives. The American Psychological Association is starting to say you probably shouldn’t even have TV around kids under three. Also, if the parents are talking about diets and looking good, the kids are going to catch that disease. Sometimes we’ve got to start with ourselves and say, I’m not going to be into clothes, fashion, or makeup anymore because my daughter will pick up on the obsession. It starts with us.

Differentiate between saying someone’s beautiful and pretty

Prettiness will fade. But beauty is something you can keep saying to your daughter time and time again. The number one effect that determines whether a woman grows up feeling attractive or not is actually whether her dad told her – not a mum, because she expects mum to say it. So dads, don’t be absent. Don’t give these magazines and television a free hit on this. You’re very important. Don’t stop telling her how beautiful she is, inside and out.

Many resources that can help girls are simply being unused. The presence of adult women in girls’ lives has been reduced by about 80 percent in the last 50 years. Girls used to have a lot of aunties, grandmas, and mum’s friends who were in their faces all the time. If you’ve got nieces, start taking them out for lunch once a month. Be their cool auntie. When the girls turn 14 they have this moment of, I don’t want to turn into my mum, so they get very antsy with mum. If there’s a cool auntie in the background who’s talking sense to her, she’ll hold her to a standard. It’s an incredible resource and it’s the same for uncles. Tell them how special and how wonderful they are. People say, oh surely, one lunch, one conversation, one five-minute talk; it’s not going to make a difference. It does. It can make the difference between a child zigging or zagging in life. It’s not trivial.

It starts simple.  For instance, if you’ve got an eight year old daughter, when you take her to the hardware store on a Saturday morning, stop for a hot chocolate on the way home. Gradually, she’ll start to make the conclusion that dad likes her company. Dad and I do stuff. When it comes to the tougher things of drawing boundaries and things like that, you’ll have this huge bond between you. You can call on that. The strongest immunization for a daughter is knowing that dad treats her like she’s special. If some boy tries to pull her strings, she’s just going to tell him to go jump. It’s that long-term and really simple stuff anybody can do.

A guy came to a Fathering Project session and all he did was take two tips away with him. One was to always play with his kids when he came home from work. The other was to take one of the kids at a time to have ice cream. His life has been transformed by those two little tips. Now when he comes home, his kids run out of the house and throw their arms around him.

It is as simple as that. You just have to be aware. It’s really important to reinforce this as girls start to develop so that they will be able to pull away in their own natural time rather than feeling that their father pushes them away because we become uncomfortable with them becoming women. It’s important to maintain having that time with your girls.

What can you do when you’ve got a daughter who hasn’t got a father figure in her life?

Uncles, grandfathers, and schoolteachers are people that you can recruit. There’s not a lot involved. It’s just that they’re interested and treat them like they’re intelligent and thoughtful. They affirm them as an interesting human being.

There are a lot of sole parent mums whose kids don’t have good father figures in their lives. Seek them out. One of the things we try to do in the Fathering Project is to take the pressure off them. We develop some resources so you can say to your son’s football coach, ‘can I give you this? His dad’s not around and it’s just a simple one-page that you can use to speak into his life, because I know you care about him.’ It just gives that coach that little bit extra information. He’ll then realize that he plays an important role as a father figure to those kids. We try to create those resources so that mums don’t have yet another burden in their life.

This article is an excerpt from Geoff Hutchinson’s interview with Steve Biddulph and Bruce Robinson. Listen in to the audio has been reproduced with permission.

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