We like to think that we are confident, independent women, but most of us will still struggle with body image at some point in our lives. Alarming statistics show that 94% of teenage girls wish they were more beautiful and 25% say they’d like to change everything about themselves. Perhaps even more frightening, a Sydney study of children aged 11 to 15 reported that 16 per cent of the girls and 7 per cent of the boys had already used at least one potentially dangerous method of weight reduction, including starvation, vomiting and laxative abuse. So what can we do to help our children and ourselves to avoid body-bashing thoughts?
To learn the best techniques to promote positive self esteem in young people we spoke to Dannielle Miller, co-founder and CEO of Enlighten Education (a provider of in-school workshops for teen girls on body image) to find out her insights into the challenging world of body image.
RESCU: Is Body image an issue that only affects teens or is this a bigger problem?
Dannielle Miller: It is a far bigger issue! The research shows that although teens do struggle with body image angst, so too do many of their parents. In fact, a recent Australian study indicated that 85% of women over 40 think they are not as beautiful as the average woman, and 1 in 5 went on to say they thought they were so unattractive they avoided mirrors. Staggering isn’t it? We are supposed to be living an era of “girl-power”, with a female PM, a female Governor General, yet for many of us the ultimate glass ceiling seems to be our bathroom mirrors. I feel very passionate about wanting to shift the female gaze – no longer critiquing ourselves or each other, but rather culture and media messages that would have us believe we only have value if we fit a narrow definition of beauty.
RESCU: What are the early warning signs to parents of young women that their daughter might have a body image issue?
Dannielle Miller: Food fussiness is often an early sign. For example, all of a sudden your daughter may wish to become a vegan, or be less enthusiastic about meals she used to enjoy. Withdrawal is also a cause for concern – social withdrawal (refusing to go to the beach for example – she may not want to be seen in swimmers), and physical withdrawal (where girls almost hide within very baggy clothing to avoid showing their bodies). Listen carefully too – if your daughter tells you she thinks she is fat or unattractive, don’t simply dismiss it by saying “Don’t be silly, your’e gorgeous!” ask her why she thinks that, when she tends to think these thoughts most often (she may feel quite triggered by reading women’s magazines for example). Talk to her about the pressures on all of us to be perfect. By admitting our own struggles, we can form a deeper connection.
RESCU: Girls are often praised about their looks and valued for their beauty. Is there a different way to speak about and to young girls and women?
Dannielle Miller: It’s fine to compliment a girl’s looks – and I certainly tell my daughter Teyah (14) she is beautiful frequently. But add to the list of compliments – she may be beautiful and smart, funny, kind, compassionate…make sure that she knows she is valued for more than just her looks. So often women are told that their looks are their currency. This message can be damaging for older women too, who start to feel that they are losing their assets… we are all more than a mere face, or breasts, or legs, or a butt. We are large and contain multitudes!
RESCU: How does celebrity culture affect women’s body image? Has the beauty ideal evolved?Dannielle Miller: I believe we are encouraged to see beauty as an ideal that is literally impossible to achieve. Images we see have been excessively digitally manipulated – the models and celebrities we aspire to be like don’t even look like the images we are presented with! Similarly, celebrities now know that looking a particular way is enough to earn them big dollars so they invest in this image. They may have full-time personal trainers, dieticians, clothing stylists, and of course professionals who groom them from head-to-toe. At the same time, we are often told that their look is ‘effortless” and “casual”. Really?!
RESCU: What are your expert tips for changing our own perception of our bodies and beauty?
Dannielle Miller: Don’t play compare and despair. Don’t compare yourself to others. Find features about your own body that you love. I wrote a “Love letter” of sorts to my body when I turned 40, thanking it for being so resilient, so patient and so strong. And I selected features about myself that I like to acknowledge.
Read fashion and beauty magazines with a critical gaze. It’s ok to enjoy such things, but be mindful of how you feel about yourself afterwards. If you often feel “less” then put them aside.
Don’t diet. Diets are a huge waste of time, money, and tend to just make us feel critical about our bodies. Love your body and you will want to feed it well, and move with it.
RESCU: What are your expert tips for challenging the way we perceive and talk to younger generations about their bodies and beauty?
Dannielle Miller: Be a good role model for the young women around you who do watch how we “wear” womanhood. Don’t put yourself down – why is the ultimate girl-world sin to love oneself? Remember the playground taunts; “She loves herself! She’s so up herself!” – I think we let them follow us into adulthood and we tend to prefer to put ourselves down rather than demonstrate self-love. I so often hear women lamenting the ageing process and criticising their bodies! Girls can’t be what they can’t see. Model self-acceptance.
Dannielle Miller is co-founder and CEO of Enlighten Education, a provider of in-school workshops for teen girls on body image, self-esteem and empowerment. She is the author of The Butterfly Effect and The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo – A girl’s guide to claiming her power, and is currently co-writing a book with Nina Funnell which will offer girls an up-front guide to ethical dating andrelationships. For more on Danni and her work visit: www.danniellemiller.com