Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Starting Young: A Bad Thing When It Comes to Body Images Issues

The other day, my 3 year old daughter said to me, "I'm feeling fat, so I need to go take a long walk."

Is this the start of myriad negative body image thoughts I will inevitably need to address during her life? Maybe she's just being a word sponge, but I can't believe she said this at her age. Where she learned or heard it, I have no idea. I just want to make sure I don't contribute in any way to it.

I've experienced my share of body image issues like most of us. When you have any unusual feature (in my case, it's being over 6 ft tall), your body becomes a point of commentary. And it can become part of your ego, regardless of whether that feature is considered positive or negative. Fortunately, comments made to me are usually complimentary. The other day, a woman in the gym locker room said to me, "Your legs are absolutely perfect. Amazing." Of note, this woman was herself tall, thin and beautiful. All I could do was laugh. I see my legs (and body, for that matter) as far from perfect - and that's ok.

Men vs. women... Although both sexes are prone to chasing perfection.
"Perfect" is a word we should stop using for many things. None of us can have a truly perfect body, be the perfect parent, the perfect spouse, the perfect doctor. There is no such thing as a perfect home, a perfect job, or a perfect anything. Someone's idea of perfect (in the case of my example, legs) is completely different than another person's vision. Maybe you value strength and thus enjoy the look of muscular legs, while another person desires very thin legs. You can soften the P word by saying "this is perfect for me", but I even have trouble with that. We're never done learning or improving. Why do we spend so much time comparing ourselves to other people and trying to measure up to some sort of perfection endpoint? Endpoints are for fixed mindsets.

Social media, which is a powerful tool for helping us as physicians reach a broad audience with our message, is also a huge conduit for comparison and the pursuit of perfection. And it's frighteningly problematic when it comes to our young girls, who tend to deeply value social inclusion and are very sensitive to shaming. I heard an interview with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who recently cowrote the book The Coddling of the American Mind. He pointed out an alarming trend of increased depression and suicidality among young girls, which has suspiciously spiked with the ubiquity of social media.

I do love my own body, but I didn't always as a child. I remember wishing to look like "everyone else", to be shorter, smaller, etc. As an aging adult and physician who sees very broken bodies, I appreciate that my body's gotten me through some serious health challenges. I would never trade motherhood for a flat abdomen with no signs of a pregnancy. And I believe in striking a balance between accepting ourselves in the present moment while also trying to make improvements. However, my acceptance only came with age and life experience. I know it'll be difficult to instill these ideas into a young girl's concrete thinking.

What body image issues have you come across with your daughters, and how have you dealt with them? Do you let your girls have social media accounts? I'd love some positive solutions.


  1. My mother made constant negative comments about her body and bought a lot of "diet" food. She weighed 150 lbs less than I did at the time. I tried to get her to stop it when my daughter was younger with very little impact. I also tried counter-programming. I was very worried about my daughter developing an eating disorder and we were very careful about the way we approached food, but not in the way most of our peers were careful - she ate lots of "junk." We did not allow her to take gymnastics classes because our local gym is an anorexia factory, and when she started dance classes we were very very careful about where we sent her. The studio we chose had dancers and instructors of varying body sizes and shapes.

    We must have done something right. She's now 19 and no longer dancing - but she had friends who developed anorexia and her comment was "I think it's crazy but I can kind of see how it happens. You spend hours every day staring at yourself in the mirror in a leotard. I'm pretty much OK with my body, and I still find myself thinking that maybe if I lost some weight that line would look better, and then I have to remind myself that this is crazy talk."

    One of the really disturbing things you'll probably find is that it's not acceptable for girls to be OK with their bodies. The daughter of a friend of mine told her that she and her friends had "bonding sessions" where they compare the parts of their bodies they hate. My friend said "What would happen if you said you liked your body?" The answer: "They would think I was stuck up."

    1. The "bonding sessions" thing is scary. But it sounds to me that you really did something right with your daughter!

  2. I model confidence in my own body and, when I want to work on something, I use words that focus on the use of my body, not the appearance. “I’m going to the gym to make my body stronger.” “I’m making the choice to eat fruit instead of dessert because I want to be healthy.”

    At a friend’s home, another child commented to my daughter that losing weight was good. I jumped right in and said that my daughter should actually be gaining weight and getting taller over time, that is how children are supposed to grow. If she loses weight, she will have to go to the doctor.

    Hopefully we can change the culture, and certainly that starts right at home.


    1. Hi Eliza! I am also trying to really model body acceptance. I had years of perseverating over my body, but motherhood actually organically helped some of that. I have to watch what I say as you mentioned so that it's about what the body DOES for us vs how it looks. Thanks for your comment!

  3. There is a great FB group called Healthy Habits Happy Moms (though its not just for moms, but all women) and they address this topic a lot. The founders also have a great podcast called Balance365 Life Radio and they had one episode on Diet Culture which highlighted some staggering and saddening stats. Like one which discussed an researcher who looked at girls diaries at the turn of the century 100 years ago and then again recently. And 100 years ago girls were concerned about being kinder, doing better at school etc. Now its about boys, their appearance and weight. How 80% of 17 year olds are unhappy with their bodies. How a crazy % of 10 year old girls have already been on a diet.

    1. Thanks for letting me know, I will check those out! I love FB groups, and podcasts for that matter. Those statistics you listed are staggering.


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