• While the issue affects boys too, many young girls unfortunately grow up with complicated body image issues

  • Dr Charlotte Markey offers 4 ways parents can encourage a healthy body image in their daughters

  • We have body image and body dysmorphia specialists on our directory – find yours here 

When was the last time you had a chat with your girlfriends about how wonderful you looked?

Why does this question seem so absurd? Would you think less of a friend who exhibited enough confidence to make a positive comment about her appearance? Do you think it should be acceptable for girls and women to view their appearance favourably and say as much?

The conversations that girls and women typically have about their appearance and their bodies is referred to as “body talk” or “fat talk” by body image scientists. It’s the type of exchange that begins when your friend tells you she looks so fat in her new jeans and you reply with, “no you don’t! You look great, I’m the one who looks like a cow.”  

According to research, these exchanges proliferate among women because they are viewed as authentic, whereas positive conversations about appearance and weight are not. In other words, women have been socialised to view disliking their bodies as the default and they don’t even believe other women who profess to like how they look.

Don’t we want more for our girls?

How do we get them to feel good about their bodies and their appearance more generally? 

1. Talk with your girls

Instead of mentioning “how much weight we gained over the holidays” or “how fat we feel” we need to teach our girls how to think and talk about our bodies in a positive manner. Focusing on what our bodies do instead of merely how they look has been shown to leave us feeling more satisfied with our bodies. In fact, in research that directed participants to either think about their bodies’ functionality or their bodies’ appearance, a focus on functionality led to considerations of physical resilience, meaningful activities, and enjoyable experiences. In contrast, focusing on physical appearance led people to think of their bodies as a “project” that required work and to make unfavoyrable comparisons between their own bodies and others.

2. Help girls question beauty ideals

Where do beauty ideals (and beauty products, plans, and potions intended to help us achieve these ideals) come from? The fact that these ideals change across time and location indicates that they are primarily socially constructed. In other words, there is no imperative to adopt them and there is good reason to teach girls to question beauty ideals. Attending to our physical appearances is not inherently unhealthy or problematic; in many cases, these are socially accepted hygiene practices. For example, washing our hair may be viewed as an adaptive appearance investment. However, ultimately, we want to teach girls that they are so much more than how they look.

3. Support the development of a healthy relationship with food

So much of how we feel about our bodies is derived from what we put into them. Our culture teaches us to experience guilt if we indulge in fried foods or sweet treats. We tend to feel virtuous when we eat salad or drink kale smoothies. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are benefits to developing a less emotional relationship with food. We want our girls to not only enjoy food, but to nourish their mental and physical growth by engaging in healthy eating. We don’t want this to feel oppressive; instead, we want girls to view eating well as a form of self-care.

4. Set a good example

Ultimately, although our girls may not appear to listen to anything we say (as they walk away with an eye roll), they see us. Whatever the role you play in girls’ lives – as a parent, teacher, aunt, coach – should serve as motivation to improve your own body image and, indirectly, girls’ body images. This isn’t necessarily easy, but it is important if we want to break the intergenerational transmission of “fat talk.”

When we adults keep the conversation about our bodies positive and focused on functionality, challenge beauty ideals and manifest a healthy relationship with food, we are showing girls that they can do all of this, too.

The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless by Dr Charlotte Markey is published by Cambridge University Press 

Further reading

5 steps towards a better body image

The psychological costs of body shame and self-objectification

My relationship with my body, from control to connection

Helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food

How to spot if a child is vulnerable to body dysmorphia