I recently taught a weekend retreat for middle school girls and was dismayed by the amount of pressure they were under. Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, in his new book The Triple Bind, describes three challenges facing teen girls today: Be good at all the traditional girl stuff; be good at most of the traditional guy stuff; and conform to a narrow, unrealistic set of standards that allows for no alternative. My middle school girls shared a lot about how these challenges play out for them in everyday life.
One challenge is body image issues: loving and accepting the way they look. This includes height, weight, breast and bottom size; complexion, hair color and style; and overall attractiveness to guys. Most of them are extremely self-conscious about their bodies and constantly compare themselves negatively to peers and women in the media, and it’s no wonder.
In 1951, Miss Sweden won the Miss Universe contest. She was 5’7” and weighed 151 pounds. In 1983 another Miss Sweden won, but she was 5’9” and weighed 109 pounds. There was a huge shift in the ‘60s about what defined beauty; Marilyn Monroe was out, and Twiggy was in. Today’s average woman, at 5’4” and 145 pounds, has an impossible task measuring up to the average model, who is 5’10” and 110 pounds. Young girls feel these unrealistic expectations, too.
We can complain about the effects of media and culture, early sexualization, mass marketing to young people, and unhealthy and unrealistic images of beauty. But to identify a far more important influence, we need look no further than our homes. I challenge every mom reading this to imagine that your daughter shadows you for an entire day, writing down all you say and do regarding body image. What would you want her to see and hear? When I asked the middle school girls on our parent day how many of them had heard their mothers talk negatively about their own bodies, every hand shot up!
So I’d like to throw out a few suggestions about how to support your pre-teen and teen daughters.
First, encourage them to develop creative outlets, whether it’s journaling, writing poetry, playing music, drawing, etc. These outlets help girls to ‘self quiet’ and reflect on who they are and what they want. It also provides healthy outlets for their feelings, which they have in multitude.
Girls also need their parents, and in particular their dads, to affirm their energy, wisdom, perseverance, common sense, etc., and to talk about their bodies more in terms of function than looks. How often do you hear adults comment primarily about how cute girls look or about their outfits?
Girls need to see their moms model healthful habits, positive self-talk about their bodies, and contentment with who they are. Moms need to stop talking about weight and dieting and focus on healthy nutrition and exercise.
The middle school girls at my retreat loved talking about these issues openly with their peers. So many teen girls think they are the only ones struggling with insecurities. They need safe places to talk and vent and get information to help them work through these issues. They need to feel safe talking to their parents about what’s on their minds, so parents need to be non-judgmental listeners.
Finally, it helps if girls can find something they can pour their hearts and souls into, some kind of project or cause with a higher purpose than looking good or being popular. Feelings of competence and fulfillment arise from being of service and making a difference in the community. As parents, we need to remember to support teen girls in overcoming cultural pressures about how they should look.
Dr, Jordan’s counseling practice serves kids and teens, with a focus on girls in grade school through college. He and his wife, Anne, own Camp Weloki, which offers personal growth retreats and summer camps.