Girls and Body Image

By Marcy Reynolds

From birth to death, our bodies -- and how we care for them, cover them and think about them -- express our identity: what we think of ourselves and others, what we are passionate about, what interests us and so much more. 

Many woman and girls have difficulty embracing a genuinely positive body image. Dissatisfaction with our bodies is often driven by psychological factors like:

  • low self-esteem
  • teasing by peers
  • family structure and dynamics
  • depression
  • trauma

In addition, girls have an increasingly common obsession with achieving an unattainable "mainstream beauty ideal"* -- a beauty ideal that girls see every day in the thousands of images and messages in magazines, TV, billboards, the internet and other mass media.

Girl Scouts of the USA recently published the results of a survey, Beauty Redefined: Girls and Body Image 2010, that polled 1,000 girls from across America. The results indicate girls have a love-hate relationship with the fashion industry, and confirm that mass media has a strong influence on young women. 

Statistics

  • Nine in ten girls say the fashion industry and/or the media place a lot of pressure on teenage girls to be thin.
  • 3/4 of girls surveyed say fashion is very important to them.
  • 60% of girls report they compare their own bodies to images of fashion models. 48% wish to be just as thin, while 28% view most fashion models as ‘sick’.
  • 31% of girls stated they had starved themselves as a way to lose weight.

Thankfully, one conclusion of the study was very clear: 81% of the girls surveyed want to see more ‘real’ or ‘natural’ images used by the fashion industry.

Tips and Techniques for Working with Girls

The seeds of courage and confidence have the best opportunity to grow in a girl who is secure and comfortable with her own appearance.

As a facilitator for ropes courses, I have observed girls who have exceptional problem-solving skills and creativity, who clearly want to participate, stand quietly aside because of an insecurity about their own body.

Some girls confessed they do not like to be touched because a peer might ‘feel their fat’. Another felt she could not trust the group to catch her due to being ‘too heavy’ for the spotters, even though she was one of the lightest in the group. These girls need help, and Girl Scouts is a great place to find it.

In order for Girl Scouts to grow and develop through the Girl Scout Leadership Experience, each girl needs to discover herself before she can fully connect or take action. Read more about the Girl Scout Leadership Experience.

Help your girls discover themselves by creating a safe, positive environment for your troop, where girls feel comfortable discussing personal issues. Discourage youth from talking about others' body parts in either a positive or negative way. Try to reduce the focus on appearance during your troop meetings.

For example, don’t apologize for "looking bad" or not having time to put on make-up. These small statements speak volumes to girls about how women "should" look.

Tween and teen girls often experience periods of exceptionally high and low self-esteem. Realizing this, and helping your girls see it in themselves, will aid the girls in understanding that cycles of emotions are normal. As a troop leader it is important to check-in individually with girls to make sure they have a safe space to talk.

Tools such as the book Mirror, Mirror published by GSUSA and The Dove Self-Esteem Foundation can make this a little easier if you are unsure how to start the conversation. Click here for information about the Girl Scout Store, where Mirror, Mirror can be purchased.

Discover: Dos & Don'ts

DO talk about this issue with your troop. Make group discussion and one-on-one check-ins a regular part of your routine.

DO be a role model by enjoying music, writing and performances by artists who have positive, affirming messages regarding women’s bodies. Avoid playing music that over-sexualizes or demeans women at any Girl Scout activity... even on a car ride for a field trip!

DO check out all the empowering movies out there, from Little Miss Sunshine to Barbie Nation.

DO encourage girls to attend Girl Scout summer resident camp. This all-girl environment provides an awesome opportunity for young women to escape daily pressures and find a safe space to learn more about themselves and try new things.

DO eat a healthy diet. Provide a balanced variety of snacks at your troop activities.

DON'T put yourself down or make self-depreciating remarks in front of your Girl Scouts.

DON'T make negative remarks about other peoples' appearance.

DON'T put off taking care of yourself! Often caregivers have trouble making time for themselves, but your physical and mental health is key to being a great mentor.

Connect: Group Activity to Build Body Image

Try this activity with your troop!

  1. Gather up a variety of magazines, preferably the ones your girls love. Be sure to include some local and national news, sports and arts magazines.
  2. At your meeting, put girls into small groups and give each group a few of the magazines.
  3. In their small group, ask them to count the number of images of women and of men and observe what types of scenes the women are in and what they see the men doing.
  4. Have the groups come together and report back. What are the common observations between groups?
  5. Find a picture of a model who is severely underweight. Share the image with your troop as a small group discussion piece. Encourage girls to share what they feel and think when viewing the image. Share the facts you have learned in this article. Understanding how unrealistic images are used in sales can take away some of the power mass media and the fashion industry have over girls’ self esteem. Discuss how the images they see of women in the media are different from the actual real women they see around them everyday.

Take Action: Support Healthy Media Images for Girls

The Healthy Media for Youth Act (H.R. 4925) supports media literacy programs and youth empowerment groups, facilitates research on how images of women and girls impact youth, and establishes a National Taskforce on Women and Girls in the Media to develop voluntary standards that promote healthy, balanced, and positive images of girls and women. Currently H.R. 4925 has 21 cosponsors, but none from Washington State. The best way Girl Scouts of Western Washington can help is by contacting their district’s U.S. Representative.

Click here to ask your US Representative for their support!

To learn more about this bill with your troop, visit www.govtrack.us. Read more details on the Healthy Media for Youth Act and track the progress of this and other federal legislation.

 

* Women’s Lives; Multicultural Perspectives. (2004). Kirk, Gwyn & Okazawa-Rey, Margo. McGraw Hill; New York.