Recently, while in the locker room at a pool, I saw a young girl finish weighing herself. As she walked away, I heard her congratulating herself: “YES! I lost weight! I lost weight!”

The girl (who was quite thin) couldn’t have been more than nine years old. She hadn’t even hit puberty yet.

As an eavesdropper on her private musings, I was saddened.

A nine year old who is constantly weighing herself is at war with her own body.

Rather than enjoying physical activity, feeling strong, and taking care of herself, she is thinking about what she can’t eat, the calories she needs to burn, and the pounds that she believes need to come off.

There are young children in our communities who are trying to lose weight at a time in their lives when they are growing the fastest. They need the fat, the calories, the carbohydrates.

When children withhold food and calories from themselves, it can lead to severe physical and emotional problems. Yet they are pressured, even at a young age, to focus on the scale, count calories, and measure up to what society determines is attractive.

After the girl walked away, my first thought was to wonder where she got the idea that she should be thinner. Was it from magazines? TV? School? Friends? Parents? Barbie dolls with their unrealistic plastic figures? Who is to blame?

But blaming leads no where.

What has caused this growing problem of young girls seeking to lose weight is complex. What matters to me is finding ways for girls to love their bodies as they are.

Any adult who interacts with girls can help them learn to love and care for themselves, and to be less concerned about dieting and losing weight. Here are five ways.

  1. Change how you talk about food. Food is not good or bad. It’s about moderation. There are exceptions to this – many families don’t buy processed foods, or stay away from things like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Some people use the words “growing foods” and “treat foods” to differentiate the food we can eat a lot of (fruit, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, meat/protein) and food that we only eat a little of (candy, chips, fast food).
  2. If you’re on a diet, talk about making your body healthier. Focus on what you’re improving (stronger, more energy) rather than on the calories or fat you’re losing.
  3. Model good behavior. Talk about how you love that your body makes you run fast, or that you like feeling strong. Don’t stand in front of the mirror pinching the fat on your belly and being critical of yourself.
  4. Make a habit of eating meals together. People who eat a meal sitting down consume less calories than people who eat while watching TV, or simply snack all evening. It also gives you an opportunity to show an example of healthy eating: trying new vegetables, eating slowly and not scarfing down food, eating a variety of foods.
  5. Do fun, physical things together. Kids love to play, so join them! Jump on a trampoline, ride bikes, take walks together, go swimming or hiking. Kids should see that being active is fun and feels good. A moving body is a healthy body.

Girls will be surrounded by images of an ‘ideal’ body their entire lives. They’ll see sickly thin models advertising perfume on the side of buses, they’ll be confronted with it on TV and in magazines. And while you may not be able to change the advertising industry, you can impact the lives of the girls around you.

As the mother of a young girl, I’m well aware of the world my daughter is growing up in. And while I often tell her she’s beautiful, just as often I mention that she’s a very kind friend, or clever, or has a good heart. I want her to love every part of herself, and feel strong and beautiful.

Little things do matter. And how you interact with a girl today can change how she sees herself in a large and lasting way.

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