What is going on in a young girl's mind when she sees images of a Victoria Secret model that might cause her to internalize an unrealistic body standard? A girl forms her idea of who she will be from the women she encounters in her world. This is just how humans (and other mammals) work. A girl's mother will be her first role model for how to be a woman.
A hundred years ago a young girl might have had aunts, grandmothers and larger family living close by to add to the array of female role models she encountered in her world. In today's world, most of the women a girl encounters during her day are actually fake women. We have 5,000 ad images coming at us each day with pictures of women like the Victoria Secret models, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The women in the ads aren't really real because they have spent hours in hair and make-up, trained like an Olympic athlete for the shoot, and the images have been digitally altered.
As a young girl forms her identity in adolescence, the images she sees of women can form her ideal for what she thinks she should look like. Her notion of whether she has met this ideal will determine whether she likes or doesn't like her body. And if she doesn't like her body and sees herself as flawed from a standard, she will live with a negative body image or low body esteem.
Today's narrow beauty standard represented by Victoria Secret models and other media images can get lodged deep in a young woman's psyche. From these and other images she begins to learn that the beauty game being played in today's world has odds heavily stacked against her. Ninety-nine percent of women don't look like these models. And, like the 80% of other women in today's society who want to change the look of their bodies, odds are that she is left feeling that she is flawed rather than finding fault with the standard by which she is judging herself. The discussion below traces the sources of a young woman's body image ideal as it develops.
A young girl develops her body image ideal from three sources. The first source is her family growing up. How a young girl's family views women's bodies forms the basis for her own body ideal.
Many a woman can trace the first time she remembers feeling uncomfortable in her skin to her father making comments about another woman’s body. This gave her the implicit message that men talk about women's bodies a certain way. She might remember her brother teasing her about being 'fat' giving her the message that this is how she is seen by others. Or she could have overheard her brother's friend describing an actress's or model's body as sexy, giving her the implicit idea that her job as a woman is to be pleasing to a male gaze.
The mother bond
A young girl's mother is her first role model for how to be a woman in the world. A girl's mother may be the key person in determining whether she will or will not struggle with her body image over her lifetime. A mother's own eating behaviors, personal body image, and view of her daughter's body are directly linked to her daughter's mental health around her own developing body image and eating behavior.
From the mother's perspective, this link might feel overwhelming since chances are high in today's world that Mom could use more work on successfully navigating through her own body image issues. Yet, for a woman who is intentional about her job as a mother, having a daughter can actually be an opportunity to heal her own body image issues. If your own body image issues haven't been worked through as a lesson in self-care, your love for your daughter and wish for her to have an easier time living in her body than you did, could be the catalyst needed to do your own self-care work.
The second source for a young girl's body image identity is her larger society. Today's young girl encounters a plethora of images of women's bodies as soon as she can work a smartphone. Our daughters see 5,000 images of women's bodies a week on television, phones and computers. This was as many as we saw in year when we were young, and it is as many images as our grandmothers saw in their entire lifetime (Renee Engln, Beauty Sick, 2017). The images our daughters see in the media conform to a narrow standard of beauty: the models are rail-thin (1% of a woman's body type) and they possess a highly manipulated look not really seen in real life. This standard for beauty creates that small box of acceptable beauty that women spend their whole lives trying to squeeze into.
The third factor for a young girl’s body image is her local area, which I call her zip code. This includes her friends and local customs. The Upper West Side of Manhattan might have different ideas for what a girl should look like than the Western region of South Dakota. What her friends are wearing, saying, and thinking matter to a young girl more and more as she progresses through adolescence.
A young woman integrates her local cultural norms into her family base and the larger society messages in forming her own ideal of what her body should look like.
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Erik H. Erikson (Erik Homburger) and Joan M. Erikson. The Life Cycle Completed, 1997.
- Jonathan Lear, Freud: Chapter 6: The Structure of the Psyche, 2015 (2nd edition).
"Many young girls are constantly consumed by controlling and managing their body image to the extent that they are much more involved in the production of the self than in living." -- Susie Orbach