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Boosting body image: Tips to talking with teens

Worried about your daughter's body image? Psychologist Dr. Nancy Etcoff shares some tips to help moms positively impact their daughter's well-being.
/ Source: TODAY

In part two of a special series on “Today,” called "Listen to Me. I’m Your Mother,” the focus is on adolescent girls, body image and how mothers can encourage their daughters to like what they see in the mirror. Nancy Etcoff is a professor at Harvard Medical School, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the author of “Survival of the Prettiest.” She was invited to share some tips for discussing body image with daughters on “Today.” Here’s more from Dr. Etcoff:

The body talk: five tips for moms
Courtney’s mom had called, sounding frantic. Her daughter, a former straight A student, was suddenly reluctant to go to school, and was manufacturing one excuse after another to stay home. She had started smoking, barely ate, and spent most of her time sulking in her room. Although mother and daughter had always been close, the two could not seem to manage a meaningful conversation, or anything beyond accusations and eye rolling. They wanted to come in to see me together, to see if they could jump-start a dialogue and get to the bottom of Courtney’s unhappiness. I will often see moms and daughters together for a few sessions although I work intensively with only one of them. But mothers and daughters share a bond like no other, and a mother who is able to really hear her daughter, to listen empathetically, can have a positive and powerful lifelong impact on her daughter’s well being.

A few days later, Courtney and her mother, Susan, were in my waiting room. Courtney was a beautiful, doe-eyed girl with long dark hair and a rueful smile. Her face was open and expressive; her body held secrets, carefully hidden behind a baggy sweat shirt and oversized jeans. Susan was attractive and slim and looked much younger than her 40 years. Their bodies were facing away from each other, but there was one hopeful sign: They were holding hands.

Courtney’s real conflict was not with her mom but with girls at school, and most of all, with her changing body — her broadening hips and thighs, her added weight. In the school locker room, one girl had held up Courtney’s pants and in the meanest mean girl tone said, “You actually wear these? I could fit two of me in here!” This was the final straw. Since then, Courtney had been doing everything she could to lose weight, including taking up smoking, dieting, and even purging food secretly, and doing everything she could to avoid school until she was thin. “But why haven’t you told me this?" Her mother asked. “This is the one thing you just don’t get,” Courtney answered. “You just tell me to hang around with different girls, or you say that looks don’t matter. Well, they do. Otherwise, why are you always on a diet? If we can’t have an honest conversation, why bother?”

Of course, Courtney’s mom did get it, and other moms do too. They are also living with the same unrealistic and unattainable beauty ideals as their daughters. Insecurity about appearance has become a cultural norm, in fact, a global norm. Eating disorders are occurring in girls at younger and younger ages, but they are also showing up for the first time in women in their 40s and 50s. How can girls and women learn to embrace their own inner and unique beauty? Some answers emerge in the conversations in my office with mothers and daughters, and answers also come from talking to and listening to women around the world, something I have had the privilege to do through my work with the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and the two ground-breaking global research surveys the brand has commissioned.

The first study revealed this stunning statistic: Only 2 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 64 felt comfortable describing themselves as beautiful. Although virtually no one thought they looked beautiful, almost everyone felt enormous pressure to be so, and that pressure started early. More than half of women around the world said they first became aware of the need to be physically attractive between the ages of 6 and 17. Fueled by these results, we zeroed in on the impact of beauty ideals on girls ages 15 to 17 in the second study,  “Beyond Stereotypes: Rebuilding the Foundation of Beauty Beliefs — A Global Report.” We also looked specifically for potentially positive influences on a girl’s self esteem and body image. We knew from the first study that many women felt that the media could have harmful effects; what we didn’t know was who might empower girls and women.

Here is what we found: The two earliest and most powerful influences on girl’s feelings about beauty and body image are her mother and her girlfriends. They are much more powerful than magazine ads, the Internet, movies, TV, boys, or any other sources in the girl’s world. And here is the key finding. When we looked at the girls who had the highest self esteem and the most positive body image, we found that those were the girls who listed their moms as their earliest and most powerful influence. Girls who listed their girlfriends had more negative views of their body and lower self-esteem.

And both mothers and daughters are passionate about talking. The vast majority of girls 15 to 17 years old feel that their mother has had a positive influence on their feelings about themselves and their beauty. More than 90 percent of girls 15 to 17 believe it is important to engage them early on about having a realistic and healthy body image. More than half of all girls and women ages 15 to 64 say they wished their mothers had talked with them more often about beauty and body image. When growing up, mothers and daughters want to talk, but it is not always easy, as Courtney and Susan found out.

Remember that you are in a unique position to help your daughter, and your impact will be more than skin deep. Courtney is not the only one shrinking from life, hiding from the world because she feels bad about the way she looks. We found that more than 70 percent of girls worldwide will avoid routine daily activities when they feel bad about their looks — activities such as attending school, going to social events, voicing an opinion or even going to the doctor. 

Here are a few tips and tools to get this important conversation started and on a positive track. You can find many other tips and tools at .

Lets talk about it
The key to a good conversation is the art of listening, of really hearing what your daughter has to say. Listen empathetically; try to see the world through her eyes. You don’t need to rush in with advice; wait until you really understand how she sees things. Adolescence is confusing and full of roller-coaster emotions. Help her to know that whatever she feels is just that — a feeling. That is neither right nor wrong. Most of all, try not to trivialize her concerns. What may seem like a small or unimportant problem may be of profound importance to her.

Be a super role model
We’re so used to criticizing ourselves that we may not even realize that we are doing so. But when we make negative comments about our own bodies, our daughters learn to be critical of theirs. Consider how your eating habits influence your daughter’s. Are the messages that you give her by your actions the same as those given in your words? In the second Dove Global study we found that one of the key concerns that moms have is that they will pass on their own insecurities about their bodies to their daughters. It's important to be self-aware and to model for your daughter the confidence and positive image you want to see in her.

Enter into her world
Take the time to watch television with your daughter, listen to her music and leaf through her magazines. Encourage her to explain how the images and messages she sees and hears make her feel. You can’t eliminate the messages that bombard her, but you can know what she faces and you can consider ways to counter these images. One way is to increase your daughter’s media literacy. Point out to her that media images are often retouched and altered. Not even supermodels look nearly as beautiful in real life as they do on the pages of magazines.

Celebrate her unique beauty
It is important to let your daughter know that you think she is beautiful. But this will have an even greater impact if you focus in on the uniqueness of her beauty — whether it’s her great smile, her curly hair or her almond-shaped eyes. Even the most self-critical girl likes something about the way she looks. You can collect photographs of her that she likes and let her say why. Help her to celebrate her strengths rather than to focus on what she perceives to be her flaws.

Reclaim the pleasure
Growing up is a confusing but also exhilarating time. Your daughter is not just a bundle of worries. She is also excited about the changes in her body. Share that excitement with her, and encourage her to take pride and pleasure in her body and herself.