With World Mental Health Day (Saturday 10th October) and International Day of the Girl (Sunday 11th October) coming up, today seems like an excellent time to share this fantastic book with you all. Written by a world-leading expert in body image research, it is packed with advice you can trust.
This book is full of sensible, science-based advice aimed at helping girls develop a strong sense of self and positive self-image. In a time where young girls and teenagers are bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty and celebrity endorsements, it’s more vital than ever they they learn how to filter out the negative and damaging messages they are being given.
This guide will help them nurture a positive body image, and help improve their mental and physical health. With sections on puberty, nutrition and self-care (amongst others), this will be a handbook to be referred back to time and time again.
Now we’re going to hear from the author about how parents and educators can promote positive body image.
How can educators and parents support girls’ positive body image? by Dr. Charlotte Markey
Educators have always been asked to do more than just teach children. They help children to understand the world around them, they contribute to children’s developing sense of self, and they model the practice of lifelong learning and personal growth. Using all these skills, they can also support girls’ positive body image.
I really hope my book, The Body Image Book for Girls, will be used in classrooms, by teachers – I’m looking forward to some virtual school visits later this term – but the strategies I provide here can equally be applied at home, by parents.
One way that educators can support positive body image is by valuing diversity in how people look, where they come from, and who they are. Our lack of appreciation of diversity in terms of who is considered attractive is not an individual problem; it is a societal problem that affects all individuals.
Value diversity and question beauty ideals
Where do beauty ideals, as well as the 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, they come from us! There is no imperative to adopt them and there is good reason to teach girls to question the beauty ideals of the moment.
Attending to our physical appearances is not inherently unhealthy or problematic; in many cases these actions are simply an engagement in socially accepted hygiene practices. For example, washing our hair may be viewed as an adaptive appearance investment. Similar practices are often viewed as fun and inherently low-risk (e.g., the use of nail polish or hair color). However, the amount of time that women spend on their appearance – nearly an average of an hour per day or two weeks per year – may hinder them in achieving other goals. And some beauty ideals may sanction oppressive behaviors, leaving girls and women wearing uncomfortable clothes and shoes and afraid to participate in activities that may negatively impact their appearance. Ultimately, we want to teach girls that they are so much more than how they look.
Increase media literacy
What is media literacy? It basically comes down to understanding the functions of media as well as being a critical consumer of it. It could be one of the most important skill sets young people need to develop in this day and age, and yet there’s next to no education about media literacy in schools. The acronym FACE can serve as a reminder of some media literacy skills worth integrating into the classroom.
First, we can encourage girls to use protective filtering . What this means is that they should be encouraged to filter their media in ways that protect their sense of self. Unfollow the celebrities they follow on Instagram if they make them feel bad. Unfollow girls at school who are appearance obsessed. And if filtering out some of the influences that leave them feeling unsure or unsettled is not enough, then Avoidance is an important next step. Young people have grown up with social media and often forget they are allowed to take a break from it! Whether it be an hour or a day, avoiding media that detracts from our life can be valuable for all of us.
The C and the E stand for Careful of comparisons and Evaluate the media. The primary mechanism by which media can erode positive body image is through social comparison. We’ve all seen a Kardashian, Beyoncé, or another celebrity on the cover of a magazine and subsequently vowed to lose weight, but we want girls to understand that celebrities and influencers are not who we should be comparing ourselves with. While they are paid to look good, most of us spend the majority of our lives invested in other pursuits. The images we see of celebrities are also disingenuous. They have been photoshopped, retouched, and stylized in ways that girls need to learn to critically evaluate.
Offer acceptance and opportunities for nonjudgmental communication
Most of us adults didn’t learn how to have adaptive conversations about our bodies while we were growing up. There aren’t a lot of models for these conversations either. However, we’ve all engaged in unhealthy conversations about “how much weight we gained over the holidays” or “how fat we feel” or “how we need to lose weight for that upcoming wedding.” Perhaps the first thing we need to do, for our own sake and our girls; is to stop making these maladaptive comments about our own bodies and to start modeling self-compassion. Although “body talk” is often a source of bonding among female friends, it’s been shown to ultimately bring people down, and serve no positive purpose.
Thinking and talking about our bodies in terms of what they doinstead 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 make unfavorable comparisons between their own bodies and others.
Set a good example
Ultimately, the girls we know may not listen to anything we say. But they see us. Whatever the role you play in girls’ lives – as a parent, teacher, principal, aunt, coach – should serve as motivation to improve your own body image and, indirectly, girls’ body images. This isn’t necessarily easy. However, when we value diversity, question beauty ideals, are skeptical media consumers, and keep the conversation about our own and others’ bodies nonjudgmental, we are showing girls that they can do all of this, too.
Dr Charlotte Markey is the author of The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless, out now (Cambridge University Press, £9.99).
Some extremely useful advice there, not only for the children in our lives, but also for ourselves.