9 Tips to Help Girls Sustain a Positive Body Image

Combatting Limiting Beauty Ideals for the Long-term

Contributed by: Janelle Lim, AmeriCorps Summer VISTA


The Keep it Real Campaign reports that 80% of 10-year-old American girls say they have been on a diet, and the number one magic wish for girls ages 11-17 is to be thinner. From an early age, girls begin to internalize messages about beauty and body ideals and they often learn that physical attractiveness is of upmost importance and is what gives girls value. As About-Face Media Literacy, Inc. identifies, unrealistic beauty standards can cause girls to endure problems such as anxiety related to weight and appearance, unhealthy diet and exercise regimens, low self-worth, depression, and eating disorders.


Luckily there are ways to help girls counter harmful beauty ideals. However, it is important for systems of support to be constant and ongoing. For many girls it can be difficult to sustain a positive body image, as images of Photoshopped models, negative body talk, and dieting tips surround girls on a daily basis.


Listed below are some ways parents and advocates can help girls combat harmful body ideals for the long-term so that girls can be happy and healthy.


1. Recognize your influence upon girls. Don’t speak negatively about your body or other peoples’ bodies. Consistently praising others only for physical beauty can also send girls messages about beauty ideals and the importance of physical beauty.


Role models of all genders should be thoughtful to not reinforce body and beauty ideals. As WebMd points out, “Girls take to heart what their mothers say 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.” Fathers should be mindful about commenting on their daughter’s appearance and also how they respond to images of sexualized, thin women because their daughters are listening.


2. Make yourself aware of media messages which are problematic for girls and women.


  • Media Smarts provides an overview of the issues surrounding the representation of girls and women in the media. There is also information specifically related to the media’s effect on body image.

  • Internationally recognized author, speaker, and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne has worked diligently to bring attention to harmful depictions of women in advertising.

  • The Representation Project commits itself to the mission of bringing awareness to troublesome gender representations in the media.


3. Open up a dialogue with the girls in your life and help them challenge media depictions. Media literacy interventions can help girls identify and critique problematic media messages and depictions of girls and women. This helps girls develop critical analysis skills which they can use to improve their body image. In order to have a lasting effect, girls need to be consistently stimulated to question and discuss what they see and hear.


For specific questions to ask, see this resource created by The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.


4. Seek out positive female role models.

  • The Representation Project suggests finding role models in real life “as well as in books, TV, and movies — that show children that they can be recognized for their talents and brains rather than their looks”. Encourage girls to use media resources that promote healthy development and behavior.

  • Common Sense Media has created lists of positive TV shows and movies for girls.

  • A Mighty Girl has listed 10 books which boost body image for girls. Further resources can be found at the bottom of the page.


5. Promote diversity. Girls come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds. It’s important for girls to see empowered and successful females who look like them, and it’s beneficial for everyone to recognize female role models of varying body sizes, backgrounds, races, gender expressions, ages, sexual orientation, and abilities. Seeing a wide range of female representation will help girls understand that beauty is not exclusionary and that diversity is beautiful.


6. Encourage girls to form realistic impressions of their bodies and to take care of themselves. Push back against negative body talk heard from girls. Help them clearly understand that some body ideals are truly unattainable and encourage them to take care of and appreciate their bodies for what they can do rather than how they look. Encourage them to eat healthfully and exercise for the wellness of their bodies, not to achieve any particular physical appearance goals.


7. Talk about who your daughter is instead of how she looks.  Check out GENaustin’s blogpost “How to Talk to Girls without Complimenting their Appearance.


8. Encourage girls to base their self-esteem on a wide range of personal traits. Help girls identify their talents, achievements, and admirable character traits. At GENaustin, we ask girls questions such as, “Why do your friends want to be around you?” and “Why is someone proud of you?” Be sure to recognize when girls are brave, creative, funny, strong, smart, and fearless.


9. Get girls involved. As The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests, girls should be encouraged to “participate in positive family, peer, school, and community activities to enhance self-esteem based on their abilities and character rather than their appearance.”


Here’s to supporting the next generation of confident and capable girl leaders!

Vanessa Wright