5 positive body image strategies for teen girls that work

Since 2003, Enlighten Education‘s in-school workshops for teen girls have been at the forefront of promoting positive body image. We know that despite the fact that girls are excelling in many ways, even our best and brightest suffer from body image angst.

A quarter of teenage girls surveyed in Australia say they would get plastic surgery if they could. Among 15-year-old girls, almost seven in ten are on a diet, and of these, 8 per cent are severely dieting. Six in ten girls say they have been teased about their appearance. Peer pressure is a cause of pain for many. Is it any wonder that I often argue the ultimate glass ceiling for females is the bathroom mirror?

Here you may access a free download from my book for teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, on how we can all begin to move beyond beauty myths:   The Battle Within .

The following five positive body image strategies for teen girls are also worth trying in your homes, classrooms and girl groups. It is important to realise we have the power to resist and change the harmful stereotypes presented to girls and women as the ideals for which we must strive. We have the power to create our own new body-loving reality. We have an obligation – to ourselves and to our friends – to end the madness.

1. Teach her how to deconstruct media images

We have been conditioned by media images of beauty that demand a look that is so thin, very few of us are able to achieve this through healthy means. Further, this ideal is often made even more unobtainable as it is artificially distorted through programs such as Photoshop. When we are bombarded with messages like these, we may begin to think we will only be loved / successful / accepted if we are also very thin. Reality? Many studies find our peers, and the opposite sex, find us more attractive when we are slightly heavier than we think is ideal. And there is no study (I dare you to find even one!) that shows ideal photoshopped-model-types lead happier, more loving lives. In other words – we are absolutely our own harshest critics.

In this channel 7 Sunrise segment, I explain just how prevalent the retouching of images is, and how this impacts on our sense of self and ability to achieve a positive body image.


2. Encourage her to realise there is more to gain from exercise than merely looking hot in a swim suit

As a teen author and educator, I am always interested to note online trends that appeal to teen girls. These provide an insight into their emerging interests and nothing seems to be engaging young women more at the moment than the incredibly fast growing “#fitspo” (fitness inspiration pages) on Instagram.

Within a matter of weeks, each new one gains tens of thousands of predominantly teen girl fans.

We might be tempted to think this is a good thing. After all isn’t there a much-talked-about obesity crisis? Aren’t we currently considering weighing children in schools as part of our response to this deadly epidemic? If our girls are finally taking matters into their own hands, isn’t that to be ”liked”, and ”shared”?

But these pages are often very problematic. First, we have no idea who is administrating them and if they are even qualified to hand out advice. After reading the advice posted I think it’s fairly safe to say that many most certainly are not qualified.

Second, all the pages I’ve seen are often nothing more than Thinspiration sites – sites that glorify unhealthy eating practices and become communities where girls with eating disorders can ”feed” each other’s illnesses by sharing tips and encouraging each other to stave off hunger and exhaustion.

Qualified Health and Fitness coach Amelia Burton explains: ”The difference between promoting healthy eating and exercise from a place of respect and love for your body versus a voyeuristic desire to be stick thin or to fit some sexy ideal is often blurred. And it makes me very angry as healthy diet and exercise offers so much more than just hot abs and bouncing breasts! For teen girls in particular, a balanced diet and sensible exercise program will assist them in many ways other than just the aesthetic: including eliminating stress, regulating sleep patterns and giving them the energy they need to study, work part time and party with their friends.”

Fabulous Instagram sites that promote positive body image messages include:

Jade Hameister: A 15 year old Melbourne school girl who aims to be the first person to complete the Polar Hatrick by trekking to the North and South Pole and Greenland. She hopes to shift the focus from how we appear, to the possibilities of what we can do.
Cate Campbell 24 year old Australian swimmer.
Girls Make Your Move: Australian government funded initiative aimed at encouraging teen girls to get active.
Massy Arias: LA based fitness trainer with a fabulous body positive approach to movement.
AFL Women’s – The offical AFL Women’s league page- celebrating female footballers from around the country.
Netball Australia The offical Netball Australia account.
Enlighten Education:  Our site! Empowering. Inspiring. Celebrating all things female.


3. Engage her in conversation

There are numerous positive body image films you can watch as a stimulus for further discussion. Taryn Brumfitt’s recent Embrace is an Enlighten favourite.

The following short film, Plastic, is also a wonderful starting point.

A big thank you to Kellie Mackerath, who told me about this film. Kellie used to be a teacher and an Enlighten presenter, and now works full-time at NIDA and directs theatre. She has these great suggestions for classroom activities after screening “Plastic”:

— The film opens with an image of a moth. Like a butterfly, a moth can symbolise transformation. As you watch the film again, plot the journey of the moth. How does its journey relate to Anna’s story?

— What are the images that Anna surrounds herself with in her flat? These images assist Anna to make some important decisions in the film. Which images encourage her to make positive decisions? Do an audit of your environment (including your bedroom, the places you study and your virtual spaces). What images/messages are you surrounding yourself with? In the classroom, create a wall of images and messages that inspire you.

— Real Beauty is the name of the magazine in Anna’s bathroom. In your own words, define what you believe “real beauty” is. As a group, create your own “Real Beauty” magazine.

Thanks also to Sharon Witt, author of the Teen Talk books,
for these valuable discussion starters:

— If you had the power to mould your body into the ideal you believe in, what parts would you change and why?

— Do you think changing these parts of your body would make you any happier?

— Towards the end of the film, when the moth lands on the side table next to the photograph of Anna, did you feel she was more beautiful in the photograph? Why?


4. Activate her!

The following are all wonderful awareness raising activities.

positive body image poster
2011 winner of Love Your Body poster campaign
  • Make and display positive body image banners ( for inspiration check out the brilliant posters made as part of now.org’s annual Love My Body campaign here)
  • Write down negative body image beliefs, screw them up and ceremonially have a bonfire ( then toast marshmallows to eat with the flames generated by letting go of the hate!)
  • Start a detox journal. Despite what the media tell us, our bodies are not toxic. We do not constantly need to detox to purge and rid ourselves of poisons. Yet our minds may be in need of a cleanse. A Detox Diary is a record of healing and of your journey from hating to loving your own body. The following are just some of the things that can be included: • images of women who inspire you • notes and letters from friends that make you feel good about yourself • affirmations such as ‘I am happy with the way I look’ or ‘I accept my body the way it is’ • quotes that motivate you • photographs of you looking and feeling happy.
    The following questions can be excellent journal prompts too:

Describe an advertisement you thought objectified women. How did it make you feel?

List the things others do that make you feel precious and special?

What are the things you do for yourself that make you feel precious and special?

What are you most proud of in your life so far?

List five things that you love about yourself?

Describe a time when you compared yourself to someone whose looks you admired. How did that comparison make you feel?

Who is a woman you admire for reasons other than her looks? What do you like about her?

Describe a time when you felt truly beautiful.

How do you think society defines the words “beautiful” and “ugly”? How do you define them?

5. Be a positive body image role model

A recent UK survey found teenage girls are more than twice as likely to engage in dieting if their mother has a disjointed relationship with food. This came as no surprise to me for one of the premises explored in my bestselling book, The Butterfly Effect.

I am left wondering how we can expect the next generation of women – our girls – to step up and change the world when we too are preoccupied with wanting to change ourselves, and obsessed with achieving air-brushed perfection. Business woman I have met have said things to me like: “Why is it that I can run a highly successful company and complete an MBA, yet I still can’t manage to not feel guilty every time I eat a Tim-Tam?”. Mothers say things to me like: ”Why is it that my daughter doesn’t realise how gorgeous she is? I mean if I looked as beautiful and thin as she does I would be happy!”

Many of us tell our daughters they do not need to change in order to be beautiful, while we rush for Botox. We tell them inner beauty counts, while we devour magazines that tell us beauty is really only about air-brushed perfection after all. If even the grown-ups are struggling to attain a positive body image, is it any wonder that our daughters are? Girls cannot be what they cannot see.

What we have to do for our daughters is to show them that we love ourselves. This is important business. It’s not just about healing us; it’s about healing our daughters.

When it comes to body image angst and being seduced by the diet industry’s seductive promise of a better life through a new-and-improved body, it seems that in many significant ways we are far more like our daughters than we are different. How desperately sad. But this recognition of sameness is also full of possibility. If we accept that the issues we need to work on affect all girls and women, then we have the opportunity to sort this mess out alongside our daughters. We no longer need to maintain the ‘Mother knows best’ facade and try to ‘fix’ everything for them. Or worse still, rage at their unhealthy behaviours, which really only parallel our own – how teen girls hate hypocrisy! We can join our daughters and work together on something greater; we can together find new connections and deeper mutual understandings.

I discussed this very issue on channel 9’s Mornings With Kerri-Anne: