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Is your daughter a self-loathing ‘body bully’?

A 2009 poll revealed that an alarming 95 percent of females between the ages of 16 and 21 want to change their bodies in some way. Low self-esteem, eating disorders, extreme dieting and unnecessary plastic surgery are all too common, even among very young girls.

To help combat this trend, child and adolescent development specialist Robyn J. A. Silverman has written “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Screwing Up Our Girls and What We Can Do to Help Them Thrive Despite It.” Here is an excerpt:

The body bully within: Her own worst enemy
It’s nearly 2 p.m. on a hot Wednesday in July, and my Sassy Sisterhood Girls Circle is winding down for the day. The girls hand in their “Real Me” diaries, which contain the answer to today’s question: “What do you see when you look in the mirror?”

From one to the next, I see the same responses:

“I think I look fat.”

“My belly is too big.”

“I can’t stand my legs.”

Ashley, age fourteen, decides to read her entry to the group. She tells them that she looks in the mirror and squeezes the fat on her size-8 thighs. “You’re disgusting,” she admits to scowling at herself. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head when she recalls the triple chocolate sundae — made with frozen yogurt instead of the real thing — she ate the night before during a family outing. “I try to be good ... and I keep telling myself that I have to have more willpower, or I’ll never be a size 0.”

The other girls nod, twist their mouths or raise their eyebrows in empathy, their own encouragement coming in the form of self-loathing:

“I wish I had your thighs, Ashley! Mine are all squishy!”

“Yeah, and you have the flattest stomach. I’m like a beached whale.”

“You guys are crazy. I’m the biggest one here!”

“I never eat ice cream. If I do, I feel huge. And I hate it.”

“I’m getting depressed.”

As girls — and, later, women — we’re informally schooled to be critical of ourselves in order to fit in; we’re taught to bring ourselves down in order to cheer someone else up. That’s part of the way girls help each other reestablish their “goodness of fit” — their ability to interlock like puzzle pieces, to the best of their efforts, and claim their place within their immediate group or community. This often means scripting out a predictable exchange that denigrates the self while affirming the other — a pattern that is then picked up by the other girl as if it were a baton. As the girls say, “You can’t be, like, ‘I’m all that.’ People like you better if you complain about how you look.” The problem, though, is that somewhere along the line, we started believing our own criticism.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fattest of them all?
If it’s true, as Mary Pipher, author of “Reviving Ophelia,” says, that in their teens, “Girls become ‘female impersonators’ who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces,” I believe they get their practice in front of the mirror.

While the common perception is that “body bullying” or “body bashing” — which I define as the teasing, ostracizing or threatening of a person because of how she looks, specifically with regard to weight — is committed by external sources, such as teachers, family members, friends or strangers, more often than not, it begins with an even harsher critic: the girl herself.

The inner body bully tells a girl she’s not good enough the way she is. It tells her to diet. She listens. She skips meals and pats herself on the back. Or she berates herself when she fails to stick to the diet plan, making her vulnerable to eating disorders, or worse. Being overweight—or simply believing they are overweight — might predispose some teenage girls to suicide attempts, according to a 2009 study that appears in the “Journal of Adolescent Health,” which looked at more than fourteen thousand American high school students. The girl in the mirror never measures up.

What happened? Mirrors used to be so much fun. As young girls, my friends and I would slather on truckloads of my mother’s old makeup, put on her high heels and jewelry and, replete with hairbrush microphones, dance in front of the mirror to Madonna’s “Dress You Up.” Our reflections would smile back, urging us on and telling us how amazing we were. We’d laugh. We’d cheer. We felt good. Not just good. Beautiful. Remember?

Fast forward to Kasey, age eighteen, a size-10 girl with a sweet smile and a soft voice, who told me recently, “If my brother and I are joking around, and he calls me a name like ‘Fattie,’ I can shrug it off until I look in the mirror. I’m, like, ‘He’s just teasing.’ Then I look at myself and say, ‘Maybe you are, ya know, a Fattie. If you weren’t, he would have chosen another name.’ ”

Mirrors have become this bizarre dichotomy: They symbolize both what we see and what we want. How did we come to expect so much from a simple piece of coated glass? Perhaps the ugliest truth about the mirror may be our willingness to imbue it with the ultimate power over our sense of worth, to be able to stare at a beautifully detailed reflection and see only flaws.

It would seem that the best solution would be to cover up all of our mirrors or refuse to look at any reflective surface, as Oprah so famously did a few years back or as the University of California does annually to raise awareness of eating disorders. But the truth is that the critic doesn’t really live in the mirror. Most of the time, she burrows deep into our daughter’s head and spends the day whispering in her ear like her own personal demon — what I call a “sour” voice, as opposed to a “power” voice — rehashing what other people said at school, playing back the dismissive look someone gave her that made her feel insecure, awkward and ugly. A 2008 study conducted by the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the University of Miami found that what influences weight-control behavior are a girl’s own definition of “normal” body weight and her perception of what others consider “normal.”

Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere
If a girl tells herself she’s fat, whether she is or not, she then goes out into the world conveying this self-assessment to everyone around her, who, in turn, become a metaphorical “mirror” of her own insecurities: Every look, every word, even a shrug of the shoulders, can intensify her lack of confidence. Ironically, while girls put themselves down to cheer someone else up, they look to others to pull them back up again. They crave feedback, but then are critical of that feedback. I’ve asked girls across the country how they know, for sure, if other people agree with all the things they believe — and say — about themselves, and they tell me some variant of “You just know”:

  • “They don’t say it’s not true.”
  • “They’re, like, ‘Oh you’re fine,’ but then they turn around and talk about your fat butt behind your back.”
  • “You can just tell from their face and how they act that they think it, too.”
  • “I don’t need them to tell me anything. I know I’m too fat.”
  • “I walk around and feel like they’re looking at me and whispering. It makes me feel worse.”

And such disparagement isn’t waiting for the teenage years to come around. The aversion toward chubbiness has been shown to begin at a very young age. According to research conducted in 2009 by the University of Central Florida and reported in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, nearly half of three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. Similarly, a 2007 study of Australian preschoolers revealed that young children pick up potentially dangerous messages that “Fat is bad” and “Skinny is good” before they even start school. One of my good friends from college, now living in a suburb of St. Louis, confided in me that her daughter, Jordan, got out of the bath, looked in the mirror, her little face and body still dripping wet, and with a long face and quivering lip asked her mom if she was fat. “She’s four!” my friend told me with exasperation.

‘Overheard’
“If you don’t fit into a small size, it’s like you just don’t fit. I feel like I’m supposed to get into one of those Play-Doh plastic cutter molds my little brother has — the one in the shape of a girl.” — Samantha, age 13

Body image quotient (BIQ): What would she say about herself?

1. When your daughter talks to herself about her body, she says:

A. “Go on a diet! Do whatever it takes! You disgust me!”B. “I should probably lose a few pounds, but I look all right.”C. “You look pretty darn good today.”

2. Your daughter thinks that most of her friends find her attractive.

A. No way. She says she is one of the least good-looking among her friends.B. She says some of them think she’s pretty, but probably not as pretty as they are.C. She definitely agrees. She tells me most of her friends think she’s “pretty hot”!

3. Your daughter says her thighs (butt, stomach, etc.) are too big.

A. That’s true. She looks in the mirror and says things like,“I can’t stand my thighs.”B. There are times when she feels that way, but not always.C. She thinks her thighs are fine just the way they are.

4. When it comes to laxatives, picking up smoking, taking diet pills or going on some crazy new diet, your daughter ...

A. Has tried them all! She’s open to anything that will make the number on the scale go down.B. Has done a few things, but she isn’t one to do them for long.C. Stays away from any of those over-the-counter drugs or new fad diets.

5. In your opinion, is your daughter a ‘body bully’? Why?

A. Yes. She picks on herself and her body every day.B. Not sure. She says insulting comments about her body every once in a while, but don’t we all?C. No. She almost never says anything negative about her body. She usually compliments herself.

A answers = 1 point eachB answers = 2 points eachC answers = 3 points eachTotal = BIQ score for Chapter 1

Excerpted with permission from “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat” by Robyn J.A. Silverman, Ph.D. (Harlequin, 2010).

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