A girl’s body image can really suffer during puberty. Here’s how you can help your daughter.
This is a guest post by Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD. Maryann is an author and family nutrition expert who empowers families to create a healthy relationship with food. She recently published My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty.
5 Things That Can Harm A Girl’s Body Image
by Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD
You’ve done everything you can to help your daughter make healthy choices: be a positive role model, expose her to a variety of nutritious food, and focus on health instead of weight.
Although these strategies are important, when girls hit puberty and their bodies change, so should your approach. That’s because the risk for developing a poor body image significantly increases during puberty. In fact, half of girls between the age of 9-14 wish their bodies were thinner.
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But it’s not just about being thin. Some girls may feel too tall, too short, too thin, or even too muscular. They are gradually growing into their adult body and there is bound to be growing pains. Regardless of how they are feeling about their body today, having a healthy body image over the long haul is directly related to healthy habits. And I believe it’s what every parent wants for their daughter.
So here are 5 things that can harm a girl’s body image–and simple ways parents can help turn things around.
Mistake #1: Assuming she has a weight problem
When girls gain weight during puberty, it can lead girls (and their parents) to think their body is a problem that needs fixing, when it’s really just a normal part of development.
Girls need to know that weight gain and increases in appetite are normal and to be expected during puberty. Girls start puberty around 10-11 years on average and their fastest rate of growth occurs early in puberty. They gain fat in preparation for their menstrual cycle. Girls go from gaining about 5 pounds a year before puberty, to 12-23 pounds during puberty.
Girls’ growth also happens in stages where they first gain a layer of fat that typically gathers around their middle. This can leave girls feeling “out of proportion” until they are done growing and develop curves.
Although all girls gain weight, it may be less noticeable in girls with a smaller frame. When girls compare themselves to their more slender peers, they will question what you’ve taught them. Others may think they are not developing fast enough. So it’s important to talk about how every girl’s body is unique based on the genes handed down from biological parents.
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Mistake #2: Restricting portions
It’s easy to see how weight gain can lead a girl to try and eat less. But because she is growing fast — and is understandably hungry — this backfires. Instead of restriction, teach her about her appetite signals. These are the messages the body sends about how much fuel it needs for growth.
There are four appetite signals — hunger, fullness, satisfaction, and craving — that work together to help girls get enough food to grow the way nature intended. Hunger and fullness are talked about the most often but all four of these signals need attention. For example, if she doesn’t enjoy a meal (satisfaction), she may not eat until fullness. Or if she has a craving she’s been suppressing, she may eat past fullness once she has the desired food.
Distrusting these signals — and one’s body — is where the problems start because these signals can turn into alarms. Honoring internal signals during eating helps girls not only embrace their bodies but to grow the way nature intended.
|No Trust; You Want to Change
|Trust; You’re Good!
|My body is all wrong and I will try to change it by ignoring its signals of hunger, fullness, satisfaction, and cravings (skipping meals, eating less, following a “diet,” cutting food out).
|I trust my body and respond to its Appetite Signals of hunger, fullness, satisfaction, and cravings. This helps give my body what it needs to be at its best.
|Appetite Signals turn into alarms and interfere with life. You spend too much of your time thinking about food and your body. Growth may speed up or slow down.
|Appetite Signals don’t turn into alarms and eating is enjoyable and easy. The body grows the way it’s supposed to and it feels good.
Mistake #3: Labeling food as “good” and “bad”
Pointing out which foods are healthy, and not-so-healthy, hasn’t had an impact on nutritious eating in kids. Plus, it can induce guilt which may decrease motivation to eat well. But a focus on how food affects functioning is not only good for body image, it’s an effective tool for showing a girl how healthy habits enhance her life.
Don’t hold back here. Talk about how eating fresh fruits, legumes, whole grains, and vegetables help poop stay regular and soft. Discuss how balanced meals and snacks gives her sustained energy for doing what she loves. Remind her that physical activity and sleep help her focus during school. Always make the focus on what is important to her.
And if she hasn’t found something she loves to do, now’s a good time to explore activities or try something new.
Mistake #4: Not talking about media messages
When we were growing up we had magazines, movies and TV to get our attention. These days, girls have an entire virtual world to contend with— social media, YouTube, blogs, text messages, and advertising. Problems with body image arise when girls just accept this virtual world. In other words, it’s not unrealistic messages and images but the internalization of them that can cause girls to feel like they don’t measure up.
All adults can help girls move from passive acceptance of media to critical thinking. And this starts by encouraging them to ask questions. Is this how everyday people look? How was this photo/image touched up? What is this advertising trying to sell me? What stereotypes are represented in this movie? Is this person’s life (social media) really that great or are they only posting the good stuff?
It’s vital girls understand the virtual world is man-made and not at all like the real world. Research suggests this type of media literacy works to help guard against poor body image associated with media.
Mistake #5: Ignoring the impact of friends
It’s not just food and body changes gain that affect body image during puberty, it’s friends and feelings. First-time exposure to hormones like estrogen stir the pot of feelings while friendships take on more meaning. As a parent, you want to understand how your daughter is connecting with others and how she is managing this new world of more intense feelings.
Good friends are protective of health and body image. If she’s in a group where she feels she has to be different from her true self to belong, how can she accept herself? Help guide her to good friends that make her feel valued and accepted for who she is.
Avoid the trap of arguing with her all the time and instead validate what she is feeling even when you don’t agree with it. Then help her name the emotion and what it’s trying to tell her. This helps her accept all feelings, even uncomfortable ones, a vital skill for strong emotional health.
Best of all, she will start coming to you with her problems and it will bring you closer. And a close bond between parents and daughter helps boost body image too.
A resource to help
To prevent a negative body image from taking root, I wrote for girls between the ages of 9-14 called My Body’s Superpower. Girls learn how their body changes, what they can and can’t control, and the positive “superpower” impact healthy habits have on their life. It helps parents with talking points and provides girls the missing information they need to understand their growing bodies.
Because one thing is clear. We need to talk more about bodies with our girls. It’s not one talk you have and it’s over. It’s about being the person your girl goes to again and again and again. It’s about loving her so much she has no choice but to love herself.
We have the power to prevent the pain and needless energy girls spend trying to change their body. Isn’t it time we teach them how to nurture the one they’ve got?
Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, is an author and family nutrition expert who empowers families to create a healthy relationship with food. She recently published My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty. Find out more about Maryann’s work.
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