What is self-image?
A girls’ self-image is her mental image of herself in terms of both her physicality and personality. It encompasses her thoughts about what she thinks she looks like, how she sees her personality, her beliefs about how others perceive her and how much she likes herself. How a girl sees herself will affect her behaviour and how she relates to others. Self-image is closely related to the concept of self-esteem. The latter reflects a girl’s overall emotional evaluation of her own worth, which is informed by the girl’s mental image of herself.
What is body image?
Body image is one component of self-image. It is an internalized response to what a girl sees in the mirror, which may have nothing to do with her actual physical appearance. Body image is about how she perceives, thinks and feels about her physical self — including whether she feels she is attractive and whether others appreciate her looks. Body image is not always tied to reality as a girl may be very slim and have an appearance that conforms to society’s beauty ideals, yet still think of her body as fat.
Healthy vs. unhealthy body image
A girl with unhealthy body image is consumed by thoughts that her body is unsightly, unappealing or hateful. She may spend a lot of time comparing herself to others, weighing herself multiple times a day, obsessively exercising or counting calories. She may also believe that how she looks like determines her entire value as a person.
Conversely, a girl who has a healthy body image is more likely to see the way she looks as just one part of who she is and be less likely to beat herself up for her physical shortcomings. She is also able to see her body as a whole, and does not fixate excessively on specific body parts.
A girl with healthy body image appreciates her body, is grateful for its qualities and capabilities, and for the most part feels comfortable and secure in her own skin, even if there are aspects of herself that she would like to improve on. It is important to note that having healthy body image does not mean that a girl thinks she is absolutely perfect and will never have to change one bit; it simply means that a girl is able to love herself even while she has yet to complete making all those desired changes.
Why it is important to start cultivating healthy body image in girls early
Girls often face significant pressure to be physically attractive. Girls’ bodies are unfortunately considered fair game for ‘constructive criticism’ from strangers and loved ones alike. However, the relentless quest for a perfect body can take a toll on a girl’s mental and physical health.
Once a girl’s body image has developed, it can become quite firmly entrenched and difficult to change. If a girl forms a negative image of her physical self, then her self-esteem will be low. Psychological studies have linked low self-esteem and poor self image with anxiety, eating disorders, depression and addictive behaviours, as well as domestic violence and sexual issues in adolescence all the way to adulthood (Silverstone, 1992; Steinhausen and Voltrath, 1993).
A healthy body image is essential for a girl’s overall health, happiness and well-being. Possessing a positive attitude towards one’s body in turn enhances self-esteem, allowing girls to explore other aspects of growing up, such as developing good friendships, becoming more independent from parents, and challenging themselves physically and mentally.
What causes poor body image in girls?
There are a host of factors that can contribute to poor body image:
-Natural weight gain and other changes caused by puberty
-Being teased, criticised or laughed at about weight appearance in childhood
-Having one’s body compared to siblings or other children
-Growing up with parents who engage in restrictive eating, or are unhappy with their body size and shape
-A cultural tendency to judge people by their appearance
-Peer pressure among teenage girls to be thin, diet, and compare themselves with others
-Media and advertising images promoting a standard of beauty and thinness as the ideal
-Well-meaning public health campaigns that urge people to lose weight.
-Lack of support and praise for other attributes beyond physical appearance
Parents: a powerful influence
By the time most girls reach their teens, they have been inundated with numerous messages about what a female body should look like. These attitudes are generally learned first in the home environment and are later reinforced by the girl’s peers, school experience, and media consumption.
“Mothers play a tremendous role in their daughters’ self-assurance and potential to develop eating disorders,” says Elissa Gittes, MD, a paediatrician in the division of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (WebMD, 2006). Girls take to heart what their mothers convey about bodies: their own, their daughters’, those of strangers and celebrities. They notice when their mothers exercise obsessively, diet constantly, or make derogatory comments about their own appearance. This is not surprising as mothers are a girl’s first and, often, most influential role model.
However, mothers are not the only influential ones. Dads, too, play a pivotal and equally important role in shaping their daughter’s body image. “A daughter learns how to relate to men by the way she relates to her father,” says Carleton Kendrick EdM, LCSW, social worker (WebMD, 2006). The way in which fathers perceive and treat all females, not just their daughter, sets the stage for her long-term beliefs about herself – as well as what she will expect from future men in her life.
A girl’s body image is an important part of her overall self-esteem. Body image does not develop in isolation as humans are social beings who are influenced by how they imagine others see them. The people around them continuously convey positive and negative messages regarding their bodies. As parents, you should pay attention to the risk factors for poor body image and also remember the home environment has a large role to play in cultivating your daughter’s body image.
Silverstone, P.H. (1992). Is chronic low self-esteem the cause of eating disorders? Medical Hypotheses. Vol. 39, 311-315.
Steinhausen, H.C, and M. Voltrath. (1993). The self-image of adolescent patients with eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Vol. 13, (2), 221-227.
WebMD (2006). Helping girls with body image. <http://www.webmd.com/beauty/style/helping-girls-with-body-image>
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
Categories: Ages and Stages