“Being confident is about knowing what beauty really is.” – Cassie, age 12 – for sharing

As Samantha and I sat in our living room chatting we began to realize that her long-term battle with food was more about fitting-in-ness than fitness. Sometimes we think that fitting into our jeans will finally enable us to feel like we truly fit in… or at least be a suitable substitute for the accepting relationships we all crave. In a world where many of us feel constantly judged beauty seems like an elusive and subjective commodity. We are barely off our training wheels before we begin to believe Love Handles are anything but; Muffin Tops do not make our morning; and freckles, braces, crooked noses and anything but flawless skin are the equivalent of a D minus in the tenuous world of popularity.

How do ideas about beauty affect girls and women?

Our sense of our own beauty determines our belief about how we look – regardless of our jean size, the perspective of others, or the messages others have given. And it would seem the majority of us view ourselves through distorted lens. One large study in the US showed no significant relationship between how attractive other people thought a woman was and her perception of her own attractiveness. 1 Girls and women others see as gorgeous do not necessarily see themselves that way. No wonder so many truly beautiful women feel inadequate.

What is going on here?

The concept of beauty – and who has or does not have it – is one of the first messages many women receive. In many parts of the world baby girls are more likely to be treated as fragile, dressed in pink and described from day one in terms of their “prettiness”. Yet…

As young as age 7 children believe they are valued more for their looks than their character. 2
81% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. 3
91% of women are unhappy with their bodies. 4

These stats are staggering. And they have serious implications:

Serious athletes report higher rates of Eating Disorders than their peers. 5
8 out of 10 girls avoid seeing friends and family or trying out for a team and 7 out of 10 will not be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision when they don’t feel good about the way they look. 6
Perfectionism, hopelessness and discouragement rates increase through teen years for girls. 7
By adolescence a girl’s confidence level is strongly linked to her body Image.

Meanwhile, the sexualization of girls in all forms of media is a “broad and increasing problem harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development” in many ways: undermining a girl’s confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to anxiety, shame, and difficulty in developing a healthy sexual self-image; and linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and major depression or depressed mood, the most common mental health problems in girls and women. 1

What can we do to build our girls’ confidence?

Limit any social media exposure that feeds into a distorted view of what beauty is. – for sharing

1. Language matters: from an early age talk more about her strengths and persistence than about her looks. And be careful what you say about women or, as a woman, about yourself. One of the strongest links to a young woman’s sense of body image is the perspectives she picks up
from immediate family members.
2. Help her find places where she feels like she belongs and is accepted.
3. Expose her to lots of opportunities and new experiences but don’t let her over-commit. There is a strong link between too many extra-curricular activities and lower levels of confidence and well-being.
4. Talk candidly about the authenticity of images in media.
5. Limit any social media exposure that feeds into a distorted view of what beauty is.
6. Celebrate diversity by pointing out what you like about all kinds of looks, fashions, shapes and sizes.
7. Educate yourself and daughter about the way concepts of beauty have changed through the ages.
8. Let her talk freely to you about her feelings and don’t dismiss comments about feeling unattractive. Rather, help her to consider what attributes make a woman beautiful (confidence, compassion, being smart, being strong etc) and to learn to think about her thinking when it comes to any insecurity about looks. For example, many girls think things like, “If I am not beautiful no one will like me.” Ask her if this is really true and help her to discover for herself any faulty or limiting mindsets.

1 According to the American Psychological Association Task Force Report
1 Jasna Jovanic et al, “Objective and subjective attractiveness and early adolescent adjustment.”
Journal of Adolescence, 12, issue 2 (June 1989): 225-229.
2 UK GirlGuiding study quoted in The Guardian, Sept 2017.
3 According to the National Eating Disorders Association in US.
4 According to DoSomething.org
5 See, for example, Norwegian research by Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, PhD, and Monica Klungland Torstveit, MS, “Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Elite Athletes Is Higher Than in the General Population
6 Dove, Girls and Beauty Confidence: The Global Report, 2017.
7 Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD. “Executive Summary: APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,” American Psychological Association, 2007.

>