How You Can Help Support Your Daughter: An Interview with We Are Girls 2012 Keynote Speaker Dr. Robyn Silverman
GENaustin is thrilled to have Dr. Robyn Silverman as our We Are Girls Conference 2012 Keynote Speaker. Dr. Robyn graciously agreed to talk to GENaustin about the pressures girls face in the world, how parents can help, and what we can look forward to learning about on November 3rd at the We Are Girls Conference.
Your newest book is called Good Girls Don’t Get Fat, about the enormous pressure girls face to be thin at any cost. What do you think are the biggest reasons this is happening?
So much of media sends the message to young girls that they must be thin in order to be valued. They tell us “you are worth more when you weigh less.” Media can set the tone for how society views weight. Then, unfortunately, those who are closest to our girls (parents, siblings, friends, teachers, coaches, etc) may buy in and reflect those messages such that they seem all the more true and important. As young girls are going through major body changes throughout their adolescent years, one of which is gaining weight (which is normal and natural), these impossible standards for thinness are nearly impossible to reach for most girls—leaving girls at war with their own bodies.
Do you think the world (or life) of an adolescent girl is different today than a generation ago? (more/less challenges, social pressures, family structure, etc.)
Because the media messages are more pervasive—they are seen more widely, in more mediums, for many more hours each day—they are seeing and hearing that unrealistic thinness is the standard they must reach 24/7. The role models and expectations around peer-to-peer relationships for our girls have also changed. We are all saturated by ugly reality TV and “anti-role models” that tell girls that it’s normal for girls to be snarky and rude rather than kind and respectful. In addition, real life role models are not always as obvious or accessible—research tells us that young people don’t believe they have at least 3 trusted adults to turn to in a time of need or challenge. And finally, many risky behaviors have been glorified by young celebrities and teen TV—from drugs to alcohol to early sexual behaviors to teen pregnancy, making girls feel rushed, pressured and confused as they go through an already confusing time of life.
What can parents do to help their daughters deal with these pressures? Do Dads have a particular role to play in this process?
Parents can be crucial in the way they help their daughters navigate these pressures. I’ll provide a few ways here. First, talk about and teach media literacy. It’s so important for our daughters to understand that what they look at and read in magazines, online, and see on TV and in advertisements is all designed to get us to feel a certain way so we’ll buy. The message to girls is often “you need this to look pretty, be more popular, get thinner, have more friends” and other hot buttons advertisers know will evoke an emotional response. When we talk about the tricks the media uses to make us feel bad about ourselves and in need of “help,” girls become savvy buyers who don’t buy into the hype. Second, simply “being there” and answering the inconvenient call at the inconvenient time can be life-changing for a girl. After all, cries for help don’t wait for a hole in our schedules. By showing girls that we are there, without judgment, to listen to them and offer insight when they want it, can help girls feel valued and supported as they deal with the pressures of the ten years. Finally, I’ll speak to your question about fathers. Dads are the first man in the life of a girl. He provides the template for how she believes boys and men see her, what they value in girls and what they expect of girls. Dads also provide a template for their sons who will underscore the actions and beliefs of their Dads. Dads are vital in the lives of girls and must stay involved, in touch, plugged in, and available to their daughters as they can provide a unique perspective and teach them to value who they are way beyond what they look like as real boys and men support girls who are beautiful on the inside, not focused on the outside.
Are their warning signs for parents that their daughters might be being negatively impacted by body-pressure?
Parents know their children best—so these signs don’t present in the same ways for everyone.
14 Signs that Your Daughter May Have an Eating Disorder
Erratic food habits: Eating large amounts of food and then disappearing from the table
Playing with food.
Restricting food intake.
Major changes in weight in a short amount of time: Considering teen bodies are changing and getting heavier, dramatic weight loss for age and height can be a warning sign.
Hiding her body even after weight loss: May be an indication that your daughter believes her body is very large even when it is not.
Hiding food: Finding large amounts of food stashed in her bedroom, hidden under her bed or in closet, disappearance of food from the refrigerator or pantry.
Refusal to eat when others are present: You’ll hear things like “I’ve already eaten” or “I have a stomachache” simply to avoid eating.
Compulsive exercising: Exercising to take off as many calories that were consumed. Exercising several times daily or exercising until she can’t exercise anymore. Hyper-focus on how many calories burned, weight, inches, etc.
Skipping meals consistently.
Measuring self-worth based on weight: Calling oneself “good” for not eating and “bad” for giving in to eating. Bashing self for eating more than the allotted calories.
Complaining about being “overweight” and “fat” when they are clearly underweight.
Missing several periods in a row. Periods can stop when girls lose too much weight.
Overall poor body image: Poor attitude when it comes to weight and appearance.
Spending a lot of time in the bathroom: Could be sign of purging or laxative use.
How harmful do you think hearing or engaging in “fat-talk” is for girls?
Fat hatred has become so pervasive that it is part of the fabric of our language and interactions. “Fat” is associated with very negative character assessments like lazy, ugly, blameworthy, unpopular, bad and “thin” is associated with very positive character assessments like beautiful, popular, controlled, successful and good. Fat and thin, then, are no longer simply assessments of size or weight, but rather of character. When we are constantly talking about fat and allowing it to become part of our friendships, relationships and everyday conversations, we are sending the “fat is bad, thin is good” message out to our friends and family as well as back to our own brains over and over. Fat talk can overtake positive self-talk. It’s insidious and contagious. Girls tell me that they believe that even if they don’t want to engage in it, they feel that it’s become social convention such that if they don’t engage, other people believe they are full of themselves. The problem is that the more they engage in fat talk, the more they are likely to buy into it.
That’s why I always tell girls and their families to Declare the “home” a Fat Talk Free Zone (FTFZ). Remove commentary such as “fat is bad” and “thin is good” from the family lexicon, and ask guests to do the same when they’re in your home. Research shows that it’s more important to decrease negative communication about weight, size and food than it is to increase positive statements. Nix those snarky comments about your body or someone else’s body.
What can girls do themselves to boost their self-esteem and start valuing their bodies?
Girls can do several things to help boost their self esteem and value their bodies. First, they can surround themselves with people who lift them up rather than put them down—and engage in positive self talk as well. The more we hear that we are valued by people we love and trust, the more we see ourselves as valuable. Second, we can engage in activities that allow us to give back. When we get involved in volunteerism and community service, we stop thinking of ourselves of how we look and start thinking about how our contribution can affect the world positively. Third, we can get involved with activities that ask us to move our bodies without focusing on their appearance. For example, many team sports like basketball and soccer or individual sports like martial arts focus on speed, strength and power rather than thinness and how you appear to others. Finally, try to limit negative media that sends the message that girls need to lose weight in order to be valuable, successful and loved. That media is designed to get girls to feel bad so they will buy products—not to tell the truth.
What can people look forward to hearing about at your keynote address at the 2012 We Are Girls Conference?
In my keynote, I’ll discuss the messages girls must face 24/7 that limit them and who they can become. Hitting on media, body image, “body bullying” and friendships, we will focus on the challenges as well as the opportunities girls have to in today’s society. Girls will be encouraged to (1) Find the one who can support and assist them but also be the one who can encourage and help others; (2) Honor their own strengths as well as celebrate those of other girls and women; and (3) Set goals and master what they are passionate about rather than what is popular while also mentoring and leading the way for other girls who look to them for guidance and inspiration. Girls will come away with tools that they can use right away as well as a renewed perspective that they are indeed leaders who can forge their own paths, set challenging goals, deal with barriers to success and motivate other girls in their lives to do the same.