The One Question We Can Ask to Shape Girls Body Image

by ParentCo. June 02, 2017

little girl playing with gymnastic ribbons in a clearing in nature

My eight-year-old daughter asked me about the size of her rear end before bed one night, and I knew something preceded this conversation. No one in our house ever negatively mentions bottom size.

"Why are you worried about the size of your butt?" I asked.

"Because a woman I know told me the other day that I was growing and so was my butt."

This caught me by surprise, although it shouldn't. The stark realization that appearance is what others define females by and is what society tries to tell us is most important hit me young as well. As a grown women, I still struggle to cultivate a healthy perspective when it comes to my body.

That's why I'm determined to handle this situation in the right way. Instead of trying to offer an explanation for the world's ridiculous obsession with size and appearance, I asked my daughter a question that I hope will help shift her perspective about her body.

"What can your body do?" I asked her.

Asking a girl what her body can do takes the emphasis off of appearance and can hopefully remove some dangerous potential habits girls adopt when trying to alter how they look. Researchers found that at least 10 percent of girls confessed to using laxatives to achieve weight loss and 20 million females in the United States alone suffer from eating disorders, so we know that these behaviors need to be modified.

Dr. Joel L. Young, writing for "Psychology Today," thinks we should we set goals by considering what we want our bodies to do and not how much we want to lose or how we want to appear. Do we want to run three miles? Do we want to do a chin-up or climb a rope?

Girls who set goals that focus on how their bodies function instead of how their bodies look may be more likely to appreciate their bodies. Even CrossFit champion Annie Thorisdottir said one of her goals as an athlete was to help women and girls "focus more on what their bodies can do than on how they look."

This concept is so simple that it should be obvious, yet this isn't the way most people approach the body and it definitely isn't what society focuses on when it comes to females. We're taught to pick our bodies apart and check them for defects, promising to do what we must to alter the way they appear. Companies selling beauty products and body-altering cures line up to offer assistance, banking on our insecurities.

Asking this one question can shift the focus from appearance to ability, teaching our girls to focus on being strong and healthy. It may also help them avoid the toxic relationships that come when children feel their parents want them to look a certain way, and it could help them view others' bodies in a kinder light.

Obsession doesn't equal contentment

What we're currently doing isn't working for many girls as they then grow up to be women who hate their bodies. "Psychology Today" reports that over 90 percent of women aren't happy with how they look, although many women in this survey were not overweight or obese at the time the research took place. Three-fourths of women also confess to suffering from unhealthy eating patterns that can be labeled as disorders either currently or in the past.

The toxicity of a looks-based culture bleeds into our personal lives when we treat our kids as if appearance matters more than it should. It usually starts out well-meaning enough, with parents recommending daughters watch their diets and monitor the number on the scale because they assume that being thin equals being healthy. This approach is flawed in many ways, one of which is that it's not scientifically supported.

Previously, most people assumed that overweight and obese individuals were less healthy than thin people, regardless of all other factors. Today, that belief is coming under heavy fire.

A study that took place in Dallas at the Cooper Institute shows that regardless of weight, people who have higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels are less likely to die early. That means people who work out regularly are likely to live longer than those who don't, no matter what they weigh.

One research report shows that even moderately fit people who fall into the obese category are still likely to live longer than people whose weight is within normal range but who are not fit. This means an appearance-focused approach robs our girls of their self-worth and long-term health benefits.

What about Barbie?

Despite all the facts that point to physical activity over obsession with weight, many girls simply want to look a certain way. Researchers worry that the facts pointing to active living over weight obsession won't even resonate with adult females.

That's why it's especially important for mothers to take the lead, avoiding the trap of focusing on a child's looks to the detriment of their self-esteem. We have the ability to change this conversation and set an example worthy of being followed. We need to ask our girls what their bodies can do, but we need to reference our own bodies in the same way, leading by example.

How we talk about our own bodies matters. Calling ourselves fat or making other disparaging remarks about our looks is not okay, especially in front of our daughters. In fact, commenting negatively on anyone else's body in front of our kids sends the message that women are judged by appearance and not by who they are and what they can accomplish.

Researchers also say it's a good idea to lift the veil on altered media images. Young girls see what is placed in front of them. As parents we have to show them how filters, Photoshop, and all the other tricks work to erase the bodies of real women and replace them with unreal images.

Focusing on one simple question can completely rewrite the script when it comes to talking to our girls about their bodies. Regardless of what concerns a girl has about her body, asking her what her body can do helps her focus on what she's already capable of and sets her on a path to movement instead of self-destructive dieting and body shame. Physically active bodies can do more because they're worked and trained, and this helps a child achieve and maintain good health and take pride in a body's performance.

It's the question that gives us answers. What can my body do? Quite a lot, actually.



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