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Children's Voice Article, January/February, 2005

Beating the Body Image Blues

By Christine Hansen
When Valerie McManus was a little girl, she was aware of certain expectations of her as a female, but she couldn't name them. As she grew older and went through puberty, she grew uneasy with her developing body and began dieting to control her weight.

When she started college, surrounded by other young women fixated on their appearances, her dieting intensified.

"I began limiting my food intake to fat-free frozen yogurt and an occasional bagel from the dining hall," McManus reflects in her book, A Look in the Mirror: Freeing Yourself From the Body Image Blues, published by Child & Family Press.

McManus is by no means the exception--rather, her experience is the rule in American culture, where you can never be too rich or too thin. In fact, our society places such a high priority on physical appearance that we spend more than $50 billion a year on diet products, and girls as young as 6 and 7 think they need to lose weight. 1

Concerned friends encouraged her to seek help for her obsession with dieting, but the turning point, she says, came during a course on the sociology of gender. "The professor demonstrated with presentations, videos, and books that our society values women based on superficial physical attributes rather than what really matters--our gifts, talents, and characteristics. She explained that having us so preoccupied with this unachievable and unimportant goal was a form of oppression. I felt something clear up in my mind."

McManus is now a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland. Through her work with foster children, McManus realized teen girls needed both information on body image issues and a creative outlet. She developed a workshop that introduces and explores body image and presents it to community nonprofit groups and Girl Scout troops. Desiring to reach more girls, McManus wrote A Look in the Mirror.

An interactive workbook based on her workshop, A Look in the Mirror helps girls assess the messages they receive from society about women's bodies, gives them an opportunity to express their feelings about being female, and provides solid information on healthy bodies, healthy living, diets, eating disorders, and gender stereotypes. It enables girls to be creative while encouraging them to critically examine the messages they're bombarded with and develop techniques to combat those images.

"In American society, through many different forums, children receive several recurring messages about how men and women are to be valued in our culture," McManus explains. "There's a dangerous emphasis for women in regard to their body size and physical appearance. The message is, 'You can never be thin enough or pretty enough,' and the definition of pretty is very limiting. That encourages girls to fixate on superficial attributes rather than their true gifts, talents, and passions. In addition, the image presented as the most desirable is unrealistic and virtually unattainable, so not only is this message distracting to girls, but it can consume them because they will never achieve it."

Unhealthy Dieting

Body image obsessions and disturbances can lead to dieting and food restrictions. A 1995 article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders reported that 35% of "normal dieters" become pathological dieters, and of those, 20%-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. 2  According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the death rate for eating disorders ranges from 5% to 20%. 3

"I think the single issue that affects the most girls is body image, as opposed to drugs, drinking, and sex," says Nancy Gruver, publisher of New Moon magazine. "Of the things we're concerned about, this should be very high on the list."

In fact, a 1997 article in Adolescence reported that 70% of normal-weight high school-aged girls felt fat and dieted as a consequence. 4  During puberty, girls develop curves and accumulate body fat as their bodies prepare for childbearing. According to Kaz Cooke in Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty, a girl needs 17% body fat to menstruate for the first time, and 22% to have regular cycles. As girls' bodies, hormones, and emotions roller-coaster to maturity, they are confronted with unrealistic images of waif-thin models, airbrushed and computer-enhanced to perfection.

"Parents need to be really aware that puberty has become an almost dangerous time for girls," McManus says. "Their bodies change very rapidly, and in a way that they have been taught is not ideal. For many girls, puberty is a turning point when it comes to increased dieting behavior--a girl is fighting her body's need for additional calories."

Yet fat, according to Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, is considered
expendable female filth; virtually cancerous matter, an inert or treacherous infiltration into the body of nauseating bulk waste. The demonic characterizations of a simple body substance do not arise from its physical properties but from old-fashioned misogyny, for above all fat is female; it is the medium and regulator of female sexual characteristics.
"One of the messages girls often get from our culture, including our families," Gruver says, "is that a person who can stick to a diet is somehow morally superior than someone who can't. That's a judgment of character. Girls show they have strong characters and that they're good people by dieting. That's an insane message to be giving to our daughters." Especially so when one considers that 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in one to five years. 5

Too, Gruver is concerned that girls receive mixed messages: "As a culture, we don't teach our children that food is fuel for giving them energy and nourishing their growth. We teach them food is a reward or a punishment or a comfort. We teach them it's so many other things than what it is."

Toxic Messages

One of the most powerful teachers is advertising. According to Jean Kilbourne, author of Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, and producer of award-winning films, including Killing Us Softly and Slim Hopes, the average American is exposed to some 3,000 ads every day and will spend three years of his or her life watching television commercials.

"We all believe we're not influenced by it," Kilbourne says. "If we thought we were being influenced, we'd be on guard and paying more attention. Advertisers count on this and spend a fortune on psychological research. A lot of advertising is targeted to our subconscious."

So what is our subconscious picking up? During her 30 years of studying advertising, Kilbourne says, "the image has gotten much worse. There is more pressure on girls than ever before to achieve perfection, to be extremely thin, and to be hypersexualized at a very early age, 7 or 8, and this devastates girls. Advertisers start very early to get the message to girls that they need to be sexy."

During the 1990s, media images of women focused mainly on tall, very slender models, averaging 5'11" and just 117 pounds, while typical adult women averaged 5'4" tall and 140 pounds. 6  The average model is about 23% leaner than the average woman, and most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women. 7

A negative body image lowers self-esteem. "And that in turn leads to a whole range of problems--alcohol and drug abuse, inappropriate sexual behavior, depression, self-mutilation, and eating disorders," Kilbourne says. "Girls have a range of problems, and some of them are attributable to these images and to the emphasis of girls on beauty and achieving a certain look and being sexually desirable."

These images don't just affect girls, Kilbourne warns. They can do enormous damage to the way boys feel about girls and interact with them.

McManus agrees. "We see these advertisements of barely dressed young girls, teens, in risqué poses, sending a message that they're always willing and wanting to satisfy boys' desires--that's a dangerous message. Boys as well as girls need to be taught that what lies within a person's character is significantly more important than what her or his body looks like."

As girls mature and become women, negative body image can lead to long-term problems, including eating disorders and unhealthy relationship choices; it wastes women's time and drains their psychic energy. "If you're totally obsessed with how you look, it's hard to get a lot done," Kilbourne says. "It does a lot of harm and is very long term--if girls don't eat properly in their teens, they don't develop healthy bones and are more likely to develop osteoporosis, so there are physical consequences as well as psychological."

Media Literacy

Countering society's toxic messages may not be easy, but it's necessary. According to therapist Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and Hunger Pains, "The problem individual parents must deal with is that your children eventually are in a world where the value system has been degraded by these great social forces. As a parent, you can do a great deal, but you can't do everything. Culture has an enormous power over everything." Pipher encourages parents and caregivers to do everything possible to protect children but warns there is no way to be sophisticated enough to always outfox the media.

Kilbourne agrees. "Teaching media literacy and teaching kids to be critical viewers decreases advertising's power, but parents cannot do this on our own. We are raising our children in a toxic cultural environment, so we need collective action to make a difference--political action, educational action. Corporations tell parents, 'If you don't like it, turn off your TV set.' That's like saying, 'If the air is toxic, don't let your kids breathe.'"

In addition to such common-sense things as talking to kids, removing televisions from kids' bedrooms, and limiting screen time, Kilbourne suggests, "Parents should also join national organizations fighting for change, such as Dads and Daughters; lobby for media literacy to be taught in schools so kids can be critical viewers; and work to ban junk food ads targeting children."

Although it's necessary to be intentional regarding what media you allow into your life, whether it's television, movies, music, or print, it's just as necessary to help children develop antidotes to bad media. "They're going to be exposed to it and will be exposed to children exposed to it," Pipher says. "They need help processing." In addition to limiting television, Pipher suggests teaching children "to find pleasure in the right things. From the time they're very young, involve them in conversation, physical exercise, work, time outdoors, time with animals."

Pipher has noticed the sexualization of girls at younger and younger ages. "Children need a childhood, and childhoods by definition are not sexual. We let them move around the world without having to be self-conscious sexually. It's very important for girls to have a sense of being valued for things other than their popularity, sexuality, or attractiveness." She notes that almost anything--writing poetry, cross-country running, or riding horses--can give a girl an identity building block that has nothing to do with how pretty she is. "Confidence, to me, comes from feeling useful, having skills, knowing you're a good person, and behaving well."

Parents' Roles

Gruver encourages parents and caregivers to assess their own feelings about body image, though it might be a huge challenge. "Then we can think about how to help our daughters, because they learn much more from what we do and from how we act ourselves than from what we tell them."

Gruver and her husband Joe Kelly, Executive Director of Dads and Daughters, have twin daughters, now grown, and they consciously considered how they would approach the issues of food and weight with their girls. One thing Gruver did was toss out the bathroom scale. "Measuring self-worth according to what shows up on the bathroom scale is an illness in our culture, so just take it away."

She also recommends giving girls compliments based on abilities rather than beauty. "When you want to give your daughter a compliment about herself and her body, make it about what her body can do--how her body is expressing her spirit or emotions: 'I can see how happy you are right now because you're jumping up and down' or 'I can see you feel kind of sad because your shoulders are hunched and you're walking slowly.'"

There's nothing wrong, Gruver says, with telling a girl she's strong, fun to be with, great at climbing trees, or brave for learning to ride a surfboard. "Give her comments about the way she uses her body that relate to her inner self, that aren't just about what somebody else thinks about her outer appearance."

Gruver and Kelly also allowed their daughters to make their own clothing choices, within reasonable boundaries for their age. Given that thong underwear is now marketed to 6-year-olds, Gruver says, "Little girls' clothing has become so dramatically sexualized in the past five years, it's depressing. As parents, I do think it's important to set boundaries for that."

Kelly, who wrote Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast, declares that fathers and stepfathers are in a unique and powerful position to help girls with body image issues simply because they are men, and because marketers and public policymakers hear them differently.

"We're not saying anything different than women have said for a couple of generations. We're presumed to be taken more seriously just because we're men. We have an obligation as men, as fathers, to go out there and hold the culture accountable for what it gets away with doing to women, this sexist stuff of how you look is more important than how you are. It's not just mental gymnastics; it is literally killing our daughters. This is life or death for some girls. It's outrageous, and we can't let it stand unchallenged."

He encourages men to put their children's faces in the picture. "When you're looking at the culture at large, seeing things in the media, in the world, and at work, imagine that your daughter is the one hearing those things, standing next to you while this is going on. Check out how that feels. Most men, if they do that honestly, get really angry. There's this visceral reaction: 'You cannot do that to my kid.'"

Once men become aware of what the girls and women in their lives are exposed to, Kelly says doing other supportive things becomes a lot easier. "Listen to her, take her seriously, focus on who she is inside, rather than how she looks. Comment on her inner qualities 15 times more often than you comment on her outer qualities--how smart she is, how strong she is, or how funny she is, because she's getting hit a thousand times out there in the world that how she looks is more important."

Fathers play a crucial role in girls' healthy development, according to Margo Maine, author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness. She writes
Positive messages from a father can help a daughter face doubts about what being a woman means today. He can help her discern her life's direction, values, and identity… When Dad's role is a constructive one, the daughter will be less likely to rely on "if only I had a perfect body" fantasies in order to feel competent and successful as a woman and comfortable with her femininity.
McManus encourages parents to help girls understand what puberty is, so they can embrace it instead of reject it. One way girls can become more comfortable with their femininity, Mc-Manus says, is through celebrations of milestones. "Becoming a woman is a wonderful and special thing, and not something to be afraid of or reject. Parents can honor important milestones in a child's development through rituals and celebrations; for example, parents can plant trees when kids reach certain milestones so the tree can grow along with the child."

"Life is about achieving our ultimate potential, following our spirit toward whatever path has been set inside of us," McManus says. "I believe the largest, most universal issue getting in the way of that in American culture is body image. It's what distracts the largest percentage of American women. It's what keeps us from recognizing and pursuing our wonderful and beautiful gifts. Women are such powerful, special, sacred beings, and the fact that we buy into our own oppression is horrible."

Christine Hansen is a freelance writer in Olympia, Washington.


  • The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women
    Naomi Wolf, William Morrow & Co., 1991; Perennial, 2002

  • Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel
    Jean Kilbourne, Free Press, 2000; Touchstone, 1999

  • Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast
    Joe Kelly, Broadway Books, 2002

  • Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness
    Margo Maine, Gürze Books, 2004 (second edition)

  • Hunger Pains
    Mary Pipher, Ballantine Books, 1997 (reprint)

  • Moon Mother, Moon Daughter: Myths and Rituals that Celebrate a Girl's Coming of Age Janet Lucy and Terri Allison Fair Winds Press, 2002

  • Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty
    Kaz Cooke, W.W. Norton, 1996

  • Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls
    Mary Pipher, Ballantine Books, 1995 (reissue)

  • The Seven Sacred Rites of Menarche: The Spiritual Journey of the Adolescent Girl
    Kristi Meisenbach Boylan, Santa Monica Press, 2001 Addresses, spiritual, emotional, and physical issues during girls' transitions to women. Includes suggestions on celebrations, rites of passage, and rituals to help girls and parents.

  • The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for Teens
    Julie Tallard Johnson, Bindu Books, 2001
    Draws on native traditions from around the world to provide thoughtful, creative suggestions for beginning the journey to adulthood. Includes meditations, vision quests, dream weaving, rites of passage, and journal making.

  • A Time to Celebrate: A Celebration of a Girl's First Menstrual Period
    Joan Morais, Lua Publishing, 2003
    Explains to girls how menstruation works, with a basic message of loving and caring for their bodies, and provides a creative, thought-provoking outlet with charts for tracking periods and space for journaling.

  • Women Celebrating Life: A Guide to Growth and Transformation
    Elizabeth Owen, Llewellyn Publications, 2000
    Provides suggestions and encouragement for women to mark important dates and events in their lives with rituals and celebrations for everything from puberty to menopause.
  • New Moon
    Ad-free, by and for girls ages 8-14.

  • Teen Voices
    By, for, and about teenage and young adult women.

From Media Education Foundation
  • Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women, Jean Kilbourne
  • Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher
  • Slim Hopes: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness, Jean Kilbourne
  • What a Girl Wants, Jacob Bricca, Liz Massie, and Matthew Buzzell
  • Center for Media Literacy
    Transforms media literacy research and theory into educational resources.

  • Commercial Alert
    Works to protect children and communities from commercialism.

  • Dads and Daughters
    Bolsters the relationship between fathers and daughters and advocates against current cultural messages. Publishes Daughters (, a newsletter for parents of girls.

  • Just Think
    Media education and resources, including an alternative media list.

  • Mind on the Media/Turn Beauty Inside Out Project
    Works to foster participation, discussion, and awareness of images of girls and women in the media.

  • National Eating Disorders Association

  • MediaWise, National Institute on Media and the Family
    Media education and advocacy.

A Look in The Mirror

Freeing Yourself from the Body Image Blues
By Valerie Rainon McManus
Child & Family Press, 2004 - $14.95, Item #8978

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  1. Garner, D.W., and Wooley, S.C. (1991). Confronting the failure of behavioral and dietary treatments for obesity. Clinical Psychological Review 11, 729-780. Available online. Collins, M. (1991). Body figure perception and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders 10, 199-208.
  2. Shisslak, C.M.; Crago, M.; & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders 18, 209-219.
  3. National Eating Disorders Association. (2002). Anorexia Nervosa. Available online. Seattle: Author Zerbe, K.J. (1995). The Body Betrayed. Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books.
  4. Ferron, C. (1997). Body image in adolescence: Cross-cultural research--Results of the preliminary phase of a quantitative survey. Adolescence 32 (127).
  5. National Eating Disorders Association. (2002). Statistics: Eating Disorders and their Precursors. Available online. Seattle: Author.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Holzgang, J. (2000). Body Image Project: Facts on Body and Image. San Francisco: Just Think.

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