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Preventing Weight Problems with Kids

The Adonis Complex: Is Your Son at Risk?

The What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys

The What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls

Reflections on Preteen Body Image

by Christine Ratliff

Where is real beauty?" I used to ask my little girl. "In here," she'd respond knowingly, placing her small dimpled hand and over her heart. When she was a bit older, she'd dance before her mirror, clothed in old, sequined dance costumes. "Don't I look beautiful, Mommy?" she'd ask me, eyes glued to her own reflection. Her self-confidence was dazzling.

I worked at raising a daughter with healthy self-esteem. Praise and encouragement were as much a part of her upbringing as Flintstones Vitamins.

Then my daughter crossed the threshold into adolescence and it seemed that everything I'd spent the 12 years teaching her was forgotten overnight. Suddenly, her self-confidence became self-consciousness; her uniqueness shed like a butterfly's cocoon. Where was my bewitching, independent child and who was this clone of all her friends?

Then the dreaded morning came when she stood looking at herself sideways in the mirror. No longer was there a look of acceptance and delight at what she saw reflected there, but rather the furrowed brow of criticism.

"Mom," she said warily, and I knew what was coming, feeling a bit sick inside as I was forced to ponder the utter relentlessness of the battle that undoubtedly lay ahead of her: "Do I look fat?" "Of course not!" I told her too firmly, protesting too much.

My response was typical, says Adrienne Ressler, a clinical social worker and director of professional development and education at the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, FL the nation's leading authority on eating disorders.
"In our desire to convince our daughters how perfect we think they are, we kind of shame them. We'll give them a response such as, 'Don't be ridiculous!' One of the hardest things for parents to keep in mind," Ressler says, "is that these girls really are feeling these feelings. They're not fishing for compliments. Believe them when they say they feel ugly or fat or big."

Eating disorders and negative body image are both prevalent and serious:

  • At any given point in time, 20-50 percent of girls in the fourth and fifth grade report being concerned about weighing too much and trying to get thinner.
  • One in five high school girls take diet pills.
  • Of women with eating disorders, 86 percent report the onset of their problems before age 20.
  • 10 percent report the onset at age 10 and younger.
  • 33 percent report the onset between the ages of 11 and 15.
  • The remaining 43 percent report the onset of the illness between the ages of 16 and 20.

Eating disorders and body-image distortion aren't about food. Low self-esteem, anger, shame, helplessness and rage are at the heart of every eating disorder, whether it is anorexia, bulimia, obesity, compulsive over-eating, compulsive exercising or yo-yo dieting.
"Today there is such a premium on stating thin that when these 11 and 12-year-old girls start developing hips and breasts, they start freaking out." Ressler says.

It is our responsibility as parents to help prepare our daughters for the myriad changes they will encounter in adolescence. Puberty is such an emotional, stressful, and confusing time for them. They may, in fact, need us more than ever before.
But how can we help our girls to feel positive about their developing bodies when so many of us are struggling with own body-image issues?

"Prepare them very early on to the fact that it's fun to be a grown-up," Ressler advises. "Their bodies are going to begin storing body fat that will help them grow into beautiful, strong women.
Reinforce the idea that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and they're all beautiful."


What is body image and where does it come from? And why do we struggle with it?
Body image actually begins to develop at birth in the way a child is held, touched, and responded to, Ressler says. Does the child feel safe? Is there appropriate closeness between the child, the parent and the environment?

"All of these things combine to give a person a sense of wholeness, where everything is connected and they feel comfortable living in his or her body.
Children with incomplete body image are so much more susceptible and vulnerable to external images.

Ressler pauses, and then adds, "It doesn't have anything to do with what size jeans you wear or anything like that."

So what can we do to help our daughters through the tortuous maze of stereotypes and ideals, the ups and downs that undoubtedly lie ahead?

"I don't think we should censor material, but rather steer our daughters into activities that are not focused on makeup and appearance. Kids are still going to be interested in the popular culture. They'd be kind of weird if they weren't," said Ressler.
To minimize the popular culture, we need to teach our kids to see it as fluff. "Like dessert. You don't eat it every day," Ressler says.

Our kids are never too young for us to begin teaching them to decode advertising. The average female model, for example, is 5 feet, 9 _ inches tall and weighs 123 pounds, whereas the average American woman is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 144 pounds. Do our teenage girls know that the pictures they see in the fashion magazines have been retouched? If there is a zit, it's erased. If there is a bulge of fat, it can be thinned out in minutes using today's computer photo-correcting programs.

"In a society that focuses so much on looks - particularly looks for little girls - we want to reinforce things other than looks with our daughters," Ressler says. "We want to teach them to play sports, that their bodies are strong, to understand how smart they are, how creative they are, how cool they are."

The first step toward helping your daughter maintain a healthy body image, Ressler advises, is to acknowledge her feelings.

Second, try to get an idea of what her reality base is. Ask, "Has anyone been teasing you?" Why do you think that? Or "Did you get that idea from a magazine?"
Third, try to give her some information - a true reality check. "Dad and I don't think you look that way at all." Or "I feel really badly that you see yourself that way." Stay focused on being empathetic and not shaming her for having those feelings.

For some of us, this will be an extremely difficult time in our parenting careers. Perhaps we suffered from an eating disorder ourselves or were raised in an abusive family or were taught that it was not OK to express ourselves. It can be difficult to model positive behavior when we aren't quite sure what it looks like.

Ressler encourages us to "reinforce intelligence, creativity, fitness for fun - not just for performance. We need to help our girls find role models other than Barbie and Tara Lapinski - people whom nobody can really look like. When your child feels that she's not acceptable unless she performs to a certain level, that's damaging to self esteem. Our expectation needs to be that they should be themselves.

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