Parents -- and others -- can help tween girls develop healthy self-esteem. Here's how.
Missy Franklin, left, celebrated her Olympic gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke with teammate Elizabeth Beisel, who took the bronze. Franklin has received less attention than the U.S. gymnastics team, said Nicole LaVoi of the University of Minnesota, because gymnasts fit a more traditionally "cute" image.
Lisa Spatz has two girls who are in the thick of their tween years -- 11-year-old Jessica and 10-year-old Natalie -- and right now, each has a different take on her body image.
Spatz, who lives in Minneapolis, said Jessica favors boyish clothing and won't go swimming because "she doesn't want to present herself in a bathing suit." Natalie is all about the "girly look" and doesn't seem self-conscious about her body at this point, expressing surprise that her mom didn't want her to wear cut-off shorts and a tank top with spaghetti straps to school this fall.
It's a challenging time and one that Spatz thinks is made even tougher by media images that this age group is bombarded with on a regular basis.
"My younger daughter is more interested in what some of her favorite Disney stars are wearing, but frankly, I have to pay closer attention to that because some of it isn't what I would choose," Spatz said. "My oldest is into the name brands that she knows other girls have."
All in the timing
Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said the focus on appearance for tween girls coincides with a critical point in their personal development.
"As girls are leading up to adolescence, they experience a loss of voice. They feel less confident and experience a loss of self-esteem," LaVoi said. "It's troubling because they can be confronted with hundreds of images every day in print, broadcast and social media on the importance of looking a certain way, rather than on being smart or skilled."
In the world of sport, for example, LaVoi said gymnasts tend to garner more attention than women in other sports -- witness the frequent post-Olympics media presence of "The Fierce Five" U.S. women's gymnastics team vs. the relative media disappearance of gold medal swimmer Missy Franklin.
"It's the reinforcement of gender stereotypes, putting greater value on a smaller or cute appearance," LaVoi said. "Fortunately, all of these girls are good athletes."
Parents can help their daughters navigate challenges they may experience relative to body image by focusing their own comments on effort and persistence over personal appearance, said LaVoi, who often speaks to parent groups about youth sports.
"I get a lot of questions from parents about their girls wanting to quit a sport like gymnastics, and appearance can play a role in that," she said. "Parents should always emphasize the value of learning life skills, building confidence, and staying active and healthy."
A frequent occurrence
Comparing themselves with other girls is part of daily life for tweens and teens, which can affect their often fragile self-esteem. Nicole Huebner Briese, a leadership experience specialist with Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys, coordinates a variety of events for Girl Scouts and others around the subject of friendship, peer pressure and healthy self-image.
"One of the activities we will do is put up posters around the room with phrases like 'This week in school, I felt targeted in a mean way.' The girls will go around the room and put a tally mark next to the phrases that pertain to them," Briese said. "It is a real eye-opener for adults to see just how frequently girls receive negative messages from peers."
Another activity that Briese will do with younger girls, typically 8- or 9-year-olds, involves "Josephine," a large paper doll. Briese asks the girls to share some of the negative things one girl could say to another, such as "I don't like your hair" or "I don't like what you're wearing." With every comment, Briese tears off a piece of the paper doll.
"Then I ask the girls to suggest positive comments, and we'll tape the pieces back onto the doll. But they can see the tape, which is like the residual effects of hurtful comments that never really go away," Briese said. "It's a very powerful exercise for them because it is presented in a way they can comprehend."
The Girl Scout Research Institute has developed a curriculum focused on healthy self-image for young girls and teens, said Briese. For the younger ones, topics include taking care of themselves, staying active to make their bodies the best they can be, and social/emotional subjects such as the ways their actions can affect others, both positively and negatively.
While it can be difficult for parents to see their daughters struggling with negative self-image, whether in a sport or social setting, LaVoi said a simple, positive message can make a difference. "You just need to do your best at whatever it is you want to do," LaVoi said. "This is how we succeed at life."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.