The other day, I witnessed a pretty funny thing. I was at the gym, and I noticed two girls who looked to be about 6 years old. They were fully dressed in cute, girlie school clothes, walking on treadmills. Oh- and they were eating popsicles. Seeing this made me laugh at first- but then my rational side kicked in and I wondered how in the world they got there and I wanted to know where in the world their parents were! I watched them as they walked side by side, and panicked when they began walking on the same treadmill together; they migrated from machine to machine and even attempted to lift weights! To conclude their workout, they took some medicine balls and began trying to do crunches- but stopped and began trying to jump over them as though they were playing leap frog (all while each eating a popsicle). At first I just thought that they were cute, but the longer I watched them I started feeling a little weird about it. It was clear that they were intent on exercising, even though they were spending two minutes on one machine, then hopping onto another, then another. I guess it was their determination that seemed funny- they must have gotten some kind of message about exercise that led them to want to participate. Whether messages from family, culture or the media (or a combination of all three!), it is likely that multiple sources influenced (and continue to influence) these girls. In many ways, an act like theirs is child-like and innocent- similar to a little girl mimicking her mother by playing dress-up or putting on makeup. But in light of something that I read a day or so after encountering these popsicle-eating girls working out, I have started to wonder just how innocent the whole thing really was.
According to a recent study, nearly half of all 3 to 6 year olds worry about being fat (!!!). A study done at the University of Central Florida revealed that 31 percent of the girls surveyed almost always worry about being fat, while 18 percent sometimes worry about being fat. What we know about body image and young girls is that when young girls have poor body image and worry about their weight, they are much more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. The researchers in this study believe that TV is one of the strongest influences on a young girl's body image, as the media portrays a standard of beauty which often breeds conformity to this standard. I also think that another very strong influence is a girl's mother. If a young girl sees her mother obsessing over food, her weight or exercise, she will certainly pick up on this and will likely follow suit. Or, if a mother has poor body image, a daughter might adopt some of the same ways of viewing her own body. This is not to say that when a girl develops an eating disorder or has poor body image that her mother is to blame; however, it is important to recognize the impact that your own body image can have on your daughter's. Children are smart- never underestimate the power of modeling healthy choices and healthy self-esteem!
So what to do??? Here are a few ideas: Discuss perceptions of beauty- what is realistic and healthy, and what is not. Initiate discussions about the way that the media alters images via photoshop and other methods while you are watching TV or viewing other media together. Affirm qualities and skills that you see in your daughter/friend/sister, rather than focusing on appearance. A great resource that I have mentioned before is Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty. Follow this link to read more about what Dove is doing to help build self-esteem and positive body image in young girls. To view their website and to access tools and online workshops, follow this link.