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Helping Girls Develop a Healthy Body Image

Question: Skin bleaching is fashionable among young women where I live. What can I do to give my dark-skinned daughter a good start on developing a healthy body image?

Answer:

Children tend to mirror the dominant expressions of their social environment as they grow older, but parents can have a stronger influence. Unfortunately, many parents underestimate their own influence. For example, a mother’s acceptance of her own body is by far the most influential factor in her daughter’s development of a healthy body image. All other factors (including social media) trail behind. Remember, that while it is never too late to initiate good habits such as regular physical activity and a healthy diet, the childhood years present the best opportunities for parents to set the tone for these habits, which in the end contribute to a good body image.  Having an affirming father or father figure also goes a long way in building self-confidence and a good body image.

The “perfect body” is a myth. Girls and young women should be helped by more mature role models to understand that attractive women come in different body shapes and skin tones according to the physical traits that they inherit from their parents. They may need to be guided to realize that desperate attempts to achieve body features that are not natural to their constitution can be physically and mentally harmful, and ultimately tend to be futile.

A “stay in your lane” approach should be taught. This involves early education of the girl child to self-identify with a body type, and to accept this body type as what she can expect to have naturally, and make the best of. This process takes patient interactions with trusted mentors, but lays a good foundation that can prevent a futile search for the “perfect body” later in life.

Despite helping adolescents to identify their body type, some girls may still be lured by the unrealistic image that glamour models and sexy media personalities project. Intentionally steering such girls to see what local celebrities look like when they are off-stage can burst the bubble of “perfection”, and initiate frank discussions about makeup.

When role models include respectable and contented women with great personalities but not-so-flattering body attributes, girls and young women can be helped to see beyond obsession with female body endowments and embrace the social value of possessing a sharp wit, a bubbly personality, or well-developed communication skills.

Development of a healthy body image usually happens in stages, with allowance for some back and forth. A sign of a move towards acceptance of a healthy body image is a girl’s willingness to shun fads and artificial quick fixes for achieving “body appeal”. Another positive sign is intentional exploration of non-physical attributes, and adoption of habits that promote long-term health. This process happens easier in the presence of sustained good example, without compulsion.

Contributed by a CH writer