Although we may not like to admit it, we live in a society that places appearance on top of the priority list. Girls in particular, are constantly bombarded with certain molds to fit into: skinny, toned, feminine, disciplined, etc. By advocating extreme diets and fitness routines to achieve that “model-thin” look, society is pushing perfectionism upon women and girls. As a result, they are conditioned to correlate appearance with perfection (i.e. the perfect body is equivalent to happiness), and it has become socially acceptable for them to be unhappy until they achieve perfection. While promoting good nutrition and an active lifestyle is indeed beneficial, the extreme “eat less, exercise more” health regime our society condones is doing just the opposite of its intentions; creating deeper health problems than we may realize.
As a fitness coach to women and girls of all ages, I have witnessed these issues first-hand. It is without question that a direct result of living in such an appearance-driven society is a culture of self-loathing and self-degrading women and girls. All too often I hear negative comments made by women about themselves and about other women. Even more often, though, I witness girls comparing themselves to other girls; looking outside themselves for happiness, instead of seeking it from within. Holding up other girls as bases for comparison almost instantly creates negative self-esteem (“she is so much skinnier than me,” “I wish my stomach was as flat as hers,” “I am nowhere near as pretty as she is”), which then transfers to the way in which women and girls treat each other in general. Not only are they going to extreme measures to achieve what is considered “perfection” for themselves, they are also becoming increasingly critical of each other! This pessimistic regard for appearance and overall womanhood is toxic for several reasons. It not only sets the standard for how others (including men!) should treat women, but it trickles down to the younger generations of girls; subjecting them to these extreme health and beauty standards as well. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s NOT good.
There is some good news, though. We have the power to change this.
In my perfect world, we would live in a culture that glorifies women for their uniqueness, rather than holding them to an unhealthy appearance standard. Because our world is not perfect, though, I believe it is our job as role models, coaches and parents to take matters into our own hands. It is my ultimate goal to counsel girls to “think outside the box,” and I encourage you as parents and coaches to do the same. Instead of allowing them to succumb to the unrealistic standards society has set for them, we can build a culture of confident girls by encouraging them to eat, exercise, sleep, and learn according to their natural needs. I believe that instilling this type of mindset at a young age will not only help them to become physically healthier women, but it will create a deep-rooted confidence that will reflect in all aspects of their lives.
Here are 5 tips that help promote a strong body image:
1. Be a good role model. She does notice.
Girls closely observe your lifestyle, eating habits, and attitudes about issues like appearance and weight. Pay attention to the example you are setting. Remember, she will model your attitudes about your body, or the comments you make about others’. So if you’re constantly criticizing your hip size or another woman’s thinning hair, she will learn to focus on her flaws instead of her attributes.
2. Teach her to see beauty in uniqueness.
As a girl grows up, she will develop a notion of what she believes to be perfect and beautiful. Because we all know that nobody is perfect, it comes as no surprise when she begins criticizing herself and others who do not live up to her personal standard. This cycle needs to end. Encourage her to appreciate both herself and the people in her life for their own unique beauty. If you hear her being critical of how another person looks, gently remind her that no two people are the same, and that is what makes us all beautiful and unique. Encourage her to look for positive aspects in everyone; not just physical attributes- “She is such an amazing basketball player!”
3. Teach her about media.
Don’t let your daughter or athlete be a fashion victim. Help her develop a healthy skepticism about images in magazines, on screen, and on the web. Make sure she understands the airbrushing, photo manipulation, stylists, personal trainers, cosmetic surgery, and other tricks that make up the beauty industry and celebrity culture.
4. Be positive.
Never make critical remarks about her body. If she has a weight problem, you can be sure she’s aware of it. Your negative remarks will only make her feel more discouraged and could make the problem worse. Instead, compliment her. Appreciate her physical capabilities. When you do this, you are promoting a healthy body image.
5. Make good health a family affair.
Your entire family will be healthier if you avoid fast food, keep junk food out of the house, cook nutritious meals, and get active. If you notice her sitting on the couch, suggest turning off the TV and going for a walk. Making health a priority for the entire family will keep her motivated and less self conscious.
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