The winter of our discontent – An LSU professor helps girls develop healthy body image

Last winter, Isabelle and Sandra Cashe were shopping when they came upon an image of a svelte, glamorous model staring down from a mall billboard.

“You know, Mom, that girl doesn’t really look like that,” Isabelle explained. “She’s been Photoshopped to death. You see a lot of things in magazines that make you think that everybody is really perfect. A lot of that is done with computers.”

And in that moment, the third-grader triumphed over sophisticated media manipulation with a confidence few adult women possess.

In fact, so many women express dissatisfaction with their bodies and struggle to achieve or maintain their ideal body image that mental health professionals have a name for it. “We call it women’s normative discontent,” explains Laura Choate, a professor in LSU’s Counselor Education Program. “Women are usually going to have some complaint about their bodies—thighs, hair, nails, eyebrows … and the list goes on.”

Based on research and her professional experience, Choate estimates 50% of college-age women harbor a negative body image, which can trigger unhealthy practices such as excessive dieting, binging and overexercising.

Despite those facts, Choate’s recent research shows that girls like Isabelle are not destined to battle the body image issues that bedevil their mother’s or even their older sister’s generations.

Her analysis of 301 surveys completed by college freshmen reveals if young women possess the following five factors, they are more likely to have a positive body image.

Girls who have a more positive body image say they spend quality time and communicate openly with their families. Consequently, they feel secure knowing they can turn to their families for advice and help.

Particularly as they approach adolescence, girls tend to look to magazines, television, the Internet and other media for cues about how they should look and act. Images and dialogue frequently endorse the idea that being beautiful, thin and sexy is the key to success and happiness. Ironically, girls who ignore or reject those messages tend to be happier with their own bodies.

Even elementary schoolgirls often feel enormous pressure to excel in every aspect of life—academics, athletics, appearance and empathy towards others. Choate’s data confirms women who accept the I-can-do-everything-effortlessly superwoman myth are more likely than their counterparts to have problems with body image.

Unfortunately, many girls tend to dwell on their problems incessantly; their relentless frustration often leads them to engage in binge eating or in self-starvation. Girls benefit immensely from developing the ability to handle life’s stressors by actively trying to cope with or solve problems rather than just ruminating on them.

Although this factor involves the way girls view their body, it has nothing to do with appearance. It reflects a girl’s appreciation of her body for its health, fitness, athletic competence, agility and strength.

“All of these factors relate to an overall sense of wellness and balance,” concludes Choate. “Girls need to focus on their strengths and [engage in activities] that add meaning and purpose to their lives and encourage a positive outlook about the future instead of focusing on themselves, their appearance and weight.”

Choate also offers parents these strategies to promote the development of their daughters’ positive body image.

Research shows girls’ body image is not related to their own weight. It is likely to reflect how their mothers feel about their bodies because girls are looking to their moms as role models. If mothers are constantly berating themselves about a few extra pounds, unruly hair or raggedy nails, their daughters eventually absorb, internalize and project those feelings onto their own bodies.

Choate advises parents—and particularly mothers—to work on establishing and maintaining a positive body image. “Your daughter is watching to see how you handle the cultural pressures that bombard us daily. Your success can have such an amazing impact.”

Parents often don’t realize how much their actions and attitudes influence their daughters’ developing self-worth. Comments about other women leave a lasting impression. “[Sometimes] we place an over-emphasis on beauty and appearance as the most important source of women’s worth and success,” says Choate.

For example, a dinner-table discussion may turn to a successful female coworker who “could lose a few pounds,” or a newspaper story featuring a female physician with “frizzy hair” and “frumpy clothes.” After hearing her dad make derogatory remarks about those women, a girl might wonder: If I don’t concentrate on appearance, is that what men are going to think about me?

“So it’s not only what you’re saying about [your daughter] directly,” observes Choate, “it’s also what she’s absorbing from you day in and day out that has the biggest impact. That’s really something to think about.”

Because having down time is essential to positive development, Choate cautions parents against overscheduling their daughters. Likewise, she suggests parents balance activities in which there is a high level of focus on appearance (such as cheerleading or dance) with Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, church, volunteer or other extracurricular programs that develop character or athleticism.

Besides extolling the virtues of eating a balanced diet, Choate encourages girls to consider food as fuel for their bodies rather than a crutch to cope with negative emotions. It’s also important to reiterate that the purpose of exercise is health, fitness and fun—not just burning calories. “What’s so horrible,” Choate says, “is for girls to get in that mindset of: I just ate a piece of pizza, I have to go run three miles on the treadmill. If they think that way, that [behavior] has been modeled for them somewhere.”

Parents can help their daughters become aware of media manipulation by questioning the motives behind what they hear and see in the media. By viewing magazines, websites or TV shows with their daughters, parents can prompt their children to consider the subtexts. Together they can consider: Why are models striking a certain pose to sell a product? Will a featured product really help the purchaser have the lifestyle pictured or promoted? How do a TV character’s words or clothes help shape her image? What is that image?

And when it comes to helping their daughters develop a healthy body image, Choate says parents don’t have to go it alone. In the last few years, several programs have emerged that encourage kids—from kindergarten through college—to realize that a person’s merit is based on much more than appearance. The goals are to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual and to develop a healthy mind, body and spirit.

Click here to read about ways to be intentional about promoting healthy body image.