Girls and Body Image

Help your daughters learn to identify unrealistic media representations of beauty and to value themselves for who they are. By Caroline Knorr

Did you know?

  • Body image develops early in childhood.
  • Body image is influenced by family and culture.
  • Exposure to traditional media is a risk factor for developing body dissatisfaction.
  • More than half of girls age 6–8 indicate their ideal body is thinner than their current body.
  • 87% of female characters age 10–17 on the most popular kids' TV shows are below average in weight.

"Body image" definition: one's perceptions, feelings, and behaviors toward one's body

What's the issue?
Our media and culture are obsessed with women's looks. Magazines have weekly features such as "Body Watch" that criticize female celebrities for being too heavy or too thin. TV and movie stars showcase unrealistic body types that most girls can't copy without hurting themselves. Ads tell girls that, with the right beauty products, they can look picture-perfect. And female characters in family films, on prime-time TV, and on kids' shows are nearly twice as likely to have uncharacteristically small waists as compared to their male counterparts.

With the advent of social media, older girls are no longer passive consumers of these messages; they're creating and sharing images of their own. But online culture is full of judgment, too. Girls often imitate celebrities by posing provocatively in selfies. They see their photos ranked for attractiveness on apps such as Hot or Not and in online beauty pageants on Instagram. They're told they can "improve" their images with editing apps that whiten their teeth or put a sparkle in their eyes.

Why body image matters for girls
The pressure to live up to such narrow beauty standards and always be "camera-ready" can affect both physical and mental health. Online communities dedicated to promoting unhealthy behavior, such as "thinspo" (for "thin-spiration") and "pro-ana" (pro-anorexia) sites, urge followers to starve themselves.

When girls compare themselves to their favorite stars, they usually feel that they don't measure up. Lowered self-confidence and self-esteem can lead to depression, poor school performance, and risky choices.

What families can do

  • Watch what you say. Body image isn't shaped by media alone. Families have a big influence on kids' self-perception. Focus on what bodies can do rather than what kids look like.
  • Look for alternative media. Avoid TV, movies, and magazines that promote stereotypes and outdated gender roles. Seek out unconventional role models and talk about people from media and real life who have different body types and say why you find them beautiful (for example, they're kind or wise).
  • Expose the myths. Point out that pictures have been altered to make models look flawless -- and impossibly thin.
  • Keep girls active. Get them involved in sports, fitness, and other physical pursuits so they discover what healthy bodies can do.
  • Keep an eye on social networks. Today's kids are living in a constant feedback loop of criticism. Help them put comments in perspective.

Get more information on media's impact on girls' and boys' body image.

Download a printable version of these tips.

About Caroline Knorr

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As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more
My daughter loves fashion magazines. How do I balance things out with positive portrayals of women's bodies?

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Comments (18)

Teen, 13 years old written by AllCanadian

OMG I'm tired of seeing everybody thinking "Oh I'm ugly, I'm gonna go on photoshop." I even wrote a poem you can read to your young tween: The mirror The mirror It’s where we judge ourselves For what we look like Not who we are Not what we do Or what we’ve done Or how we influence the world It is simply an invention So shallow So short-sighted We don’t know who we truly are now We only know our skin deep shell And that shell is beauty A shell with no purpose Until you get past what you look like And see what you are Or what you’ve become Whether you are homeless or orphaned Or anything You are unique But the mirror never told you that Or anything Just whether you are ugly or pretty But that does not matter We are all beautiful We just don’t know it We just don’t see it But we are Just as beautiful as everything We are But in our own way I don’t want to be the person Who believes what the mirror says I want to make the world see Ugly does not exist But it is what we say we are What we believe we are That we think we are But we are not And never will be Because we all are pretty In our own way But we sadly don’t see it It’s our culture And our culture is the media The media is racist, sexist, and lying They want us to mask ourselves With makeup The kind in the drugstore The kind that everybody wears To make us pretty But we already are Why we are masking ourselves Is the silver mirror But everybody is pretty We don’t see it But I do You can too
Adult written by Senser123

I am a woman on Weight Watchers and I feel this blog and video show that Girls of today are more pressured to develop a negative body image than ever before I mean who wants to be a skinny Minnie? I 'd rather be happy to be a curvy Sofia Vergara type and at a healthy weight .
Kid, 10 years old

My friend is anorexic and she's eleven. She won't eat any sweets or chocolate or anything like everybody else and when we went away to our first sleep away camp with school in December she wouldn't eat cos apparently it was all too fatty it wasn't it was mostly healthy food she had to go home on the first day because she wouldn't eat at all and she's thin anyway but now deathly thin she started ballet lessons a while ago and a really mean girl said 'to be good you have to be thin' and now she won't eat at all
Teen, 13 years old written by AllCanadian

I'm sorry. Talk to your friends mom. She'll probably sign her up for therapy of some sort. Remind your friend that outer beauty is an illusion, it's the inside that counts.
Teen, 13 years old written by xxRisingUpxx

I actually am recovering from a very minor ED because I was a chubby kid and my mum repeatedly called me fat and restricted my food sometimes as well as forcing me to excersise. I developed my ED at 12.5 and stopped at 12 and 10 months. Ppl say that ED girls are idiots. I actually have an IQ of 142 and am a huge perfectionist. Exception!!! :)
Kid, 10 years old

Yeah, it's really sad. I see girls in my class stress about weight. At sleep away camp, I even saw a girl who had a lot of mashed potatoes be teased because "She's gonna wake up tomorrow and be fat" I'm glad people are addressing this
Adult written by Senser123

I feel Body Image issues are just more common among Girls than Boys and have been from the dawn of civilization but I'm also glad that those body image issues among both genders are being addressed Today more so than in the past.
Adult written by Julia Evans

I totally agree, flaunting women in their swimwear that have been photoshopped to the max should be policed in some way - appearing on the cartoon network for example is a joke!
Adult written by JEDI micah

I think that women, especially young girls, should ignore most of what the media says about how a woman should look in order to get attention. All women are beautiful. But what really matters most is what lies on the inside of the woman's heart. Is she funny? Nice? Mean? That is what men, like me, should look at when finding that right person. The girl's got the looks already, now you should find out what's in her heart!
Parent of a 4 and 7 year old written by Jrseygirl

We also need to make sure our boys know about all this too. Otherwise they will measure all the girls they know against what they see in the media. We must show them that real girls are all shapes and sizes and it is who they are and their character that really matter.
Teen, 13 years old written by Snowing Down

Your life is at most a century long. Your memory will go on for a hundred times that. After your death, who will remember how heavy you were or how tall you were? Who will remember if you were considered a beauty queen or an ugly duckling? It's what you thought and said and did that truly matters (really, it is. Think about it), so why not focus on that?
Kid, 10 years old

Yaaay *applause* this reminds me of something I heard a while ago: Don't worry about your hair it will turn white some day Don't worry about having a hot or sexy body it will sag one day Don't worry about having white teeth they will fall out some day Don't worry about having a pretty face it will wrinkle some day Instead worry about having a loyal heart that will love you everyday The last line doesn't really make sense but it's really about love so ignore the love you everyday bit. Also thought of this: Dear Girls, For one day, I dare you to bake brownies and eat them, as many as you want. For one day, I dare you to go up to your crush and talk to him, about anything you want For one day, I dare you to speak your mind, even if others don't agree For one day, I dare you to wear what you want to wear, not what you are told to wear For one day, I dare you to go makeup-free For one day, I dare you to put your hand up in class and ask questions, even if you are branded as a nerd For one day, I dare you to laugh as loud as you can when you find something funny For one day, I dare you to be friends with the people you want to be friends with, not the most popular girls in school For one day, I dare you to be 100% You. I hope you liked these everyone and they brightened your day a little!
Adult written by KitschWitch

The research suggests that for girls generally dip in self-esteem around puberty and it never really gets back to that early level. The exception is girls who play all-girl team sports--their self-esteem does recover and they seem to manage much better. Food for thought.
Teen, 16 years old written by janayl

just wanna note the "team" part is very important here. sports like cheerleading, dance, and gymnastics don't help and are more likely to make it worse. Girls tend to gain a lot of weight during puberty, and their bodies changing make these sports extra challenging. coaches in these sports also tend to put more pressure on girls to have certain body type (esp. dance and gymnastics).
Parent of a 14 year old written by gabrielleA

Read the "Too Sexy Too Soon" section too....can't believe some mom's actually help fuel this section by the things they allow in "that" section - revealing clothes, watching age-inappropriate things, padded and/or push-up bras for kids too young to even pay for their own stuff? I had an eating disorder many years ago - media is one avenue that makes it hard for girls to enjoy their youth (need to be 'the best' looking, whatever that means) but parents need to let them be age-appropriate too.
Teen, 14 years old written by LtCentaur

Thank you for your great article! As a teenager, I have had struggles with my own body image, as I am not the skinniest kid ever, but I am still within a good weight range. For girls who are not eating to lose weight that isn't there, tell them that to have a healthy weight, you have to eat right, and actually eat, not starve yourself on diets less than 400 calories. As said, make sure they have lots of fruits and veggies, and just make sure they go outside sometimes. It sickens me that little 6 year olds are thinking that they are "too fat", whereas being a little chubby in the abdomen at that age is actually normal. When I was six, all I was worried about was playing and having fun, not looking anorexic. I have actually seen weight loss ads on Cartoon Network, targeted for the parents watching shows alongside their children, but young children can pick up the message as well. And cartoons even emphasize that only skinny girls can be popular, and that differently built children are nerds and can't have friends or fun. I sure hope that a new role model with a larger build can come out soon that is good for children.
Teen, 13 years old written by smartkitty

and on disney channal too. the "stop obesity" movement is not going to help anyone and will only make kids depressed and anirexic.