How Can We Help Young Women Develop Positive Body Image?

Latin mother kissing daughter with long hair on forehead in sunny, tree-lit areaAdolescence is well known to be a challenging time. Much has been written about the difficulties of early adolescence, especially as it relates to the development of girls. Dr. Mary Pipher’s 2005 book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, written from her years of experience working with young women in therapy, is an exploration of her discovery that the process of developing into women is painful for many girls. Development in young women, she found, often involves the loss of self, which happens as girls internalize the pressure to be in service to others by becoming what other people seem to expect of them. In this way, they are fulfilling the desires of others. These pressures can manifest in many ways. The onset of negative body image or eating disorders are just two examples.

In my practice I have seen this loss of identity myself, in people who have struggled for years with disordered eating and poor body image. Many young women make an effort to control and hide their emotions by over-focusing on the body, hoping to earn back a sense of stability by attaining a certain ideal. But when attempts of trying to cope with difficult feelings and social pressures are externally focused, girls can end up losing who they are in the struggle.

Rather than determining on their own who they are and how they want to navigate adulthood, many girls don’t know how they feel about anything, independent of the opinions of others. They cannot identify their likes or dislikes, and they no longer know what they stand for anymore. Sometimes they are unable to determine whether they are angry, bored, or hungry. They talk about feeling lost. I have found that the more time girls have spent fixated on the body and the way they look, the more work they often have to do to reclaim their sense of self.

Recently, researchers have been studying how social media affects the development of young women today. Consumption of social media can contribute to poor body image. One study found an overwhelming majority of girls had both home internet access and social media accounts. The time they spent online “significantly related” to unhealthy body monitoring and the internalization of the thin ideal. Further, the girls who used Facebook scored higher on all body image concern measures than those who did not use Facebook (Tiggermann &  Slater, 2013).

In another study, girls who had positive body images tended to be critical of the body ideals presented to them on social media and had a more complex and personal view of beauty. The authors discussed the importance of teaching media literacy and feminist theory to create more resilience in young women faced with societal pressure to achieve and maintain a certain type of body or appearance.

Helping Young Women Develop Strong Selves

We often cannot prevent the young women in our lives from being exposed to pressures such as the thin ideal, but we can protect them. Specifically, we can help girls increase their resilience by encouraging the growth and sustenance of a strong sense of self.

  • Open discussion of the ways society pressures girls to please others and conform to certain standards of beauty can help them understand how and why these standards are flawed. Talk openly at home with young teens about their social experiences. Do they feel pressured to fit in by conforming to the expectations of others? Encourage them to question how they can grow their strongest sense of internal self if they focus on external aspects.
  • Avoid focusing on body size or shape. Encourage them to give time and attention to interests that are not about the body or appearance. Encourage nutritious food choices and physical activity in addition to other healthy habits, but avoid “diet talk” and discussion of size or weight (your own as well as theirs—if you disparage your own body, your child is likely to absorb this language and behavior). Speak of food in terms of the energy it provides and how it fuels the body, not in terms of how it affects size.
  • Encourage them to critically reflect on gender role expectations, especially with regard to their bodies. Is their body for strength, movement, their own enjoyment—or is it there for the pleasure of others? Does it matter to them what others think of their body? If so, why? What do they personally see as an ideal body? Where did they get that idea from?
  • Encourage them to think critically about the ideas they encounter. If they show you a photo of a friend on Facebook and comment on the person’s appearance, or compare their own, take the opportunity to discuss their thoughts (without criticizing them). Ask why they feel the way they do. Ask how the images they see online make them feel. You might share how how social comparison in general makes you feel, and ask how it makes them feel.
  • Allow for a full range of expressed emotion. We learn about boundaries and self-regulation through expression. Allow your children to (safely) be happy, sad, angry, excited, or anything else. Encourage them to explore healthy coping methods for difficult emotions, and help them learn to practice self-regulation so they do not feel the need to conceal, suppress, or escape their feelings.
  • Be a good role model for emotional self-acceptance and self-care. Showing your own acceptance of and love for all aspects of your body is one of the most effective ways to help your children learn to love and accept their own bodies. Devote regular time to self-care, and encourage your child to do the same.

If you are unsure of how to begin exploring any of the above issues with your child, the support of a compassionate, qualified therapist or counselor may be of benefit. You might also consider seeking professional help if you struggle with your own emotions or sense of self or if your daughter is preoccupied with her weight or body and these conversations do not seem to helping.

We recognize the many challenges of adolescence, especially those related to body image and social pressures, are not specific to girls and young women. While this article focuses on the experience of young women, individuals of any gender may experience body image issues and disordered eating. If you (or your child) are struggling, we encourage you to seek support from a counselor. Help is available for all. 

References:

  1. Pipher, M. (2005). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
  2. Holmqvist, K., & Frisén, A. (2012). “I bet they aren’t that perfect in reality:” Appearance ideals viewed from the perspective of adolescents with a positive body image. Body Image, 9(3), 388-395. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22542634
  3. Santa Cruz, J. (2014, March 10). Body image pressure increasingly affects boys. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/body-image-pressure-increasingly-affects-boys/283897
  4. Tiggermann, M., & Slater, A. (2013). NetGirls: The internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(6). 630-633. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23712456

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shirley Katz, PhD, RP, CCC, therapist in North York, Ontario

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rhianna H.

    Rhianna H.

    October 8th, 2018 at 12:21 PM

    My sister has been showing signs of anorexia, and my parents and I are looking for ways to help her develop a more positive body image. Encouraging her to think critically about the role that gender expectations may be shaping her image of herself is a good tip, particularly with figuring out if what she’s feeling is about her own enjoyment of her body versus the enjoyment of others. We’ll be sure to try out these critical thinking exercises with her, and also find her a counselor soon, as you suggest.

  • GoodTherapy.org Support Team

    GoodTherapy.org Support Team

    October 9th, 2018 at 2:29 PM

    Dear Rhianna H.,

    If you or your family would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html.

    Once you’ve entered your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

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