Promoting positive self-talk and body image in girls
by Jennifer Hull-Rogers •
The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world around him. — Confucius
When he said this, whether Confucius knew it or not, he was speaking about self-talk. Self-talk is the inner monologue we hold with ourselves throughout the day. The “mood” of this internal conversation affects how we feel about ourselves on our journey of life.
If self-talk is constructive (I deserve this, I’ve worked hard for this, I am capable, etc.), you feel motivated and confident. If it is negative (I look stupid in these clothes, nothing’s going to get better, etc.), you second guess yourself and become filled with doubt.
This inner dialogue affects our mental state. When it is positive, confidence is boosted, performance increases, stress levels go down, and positive physical health is cultivated. When it is powerfully negative, self-talk can distort our self-image and may even result in a loss of our true self.
Media and Loss of Self
In her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), Mary Pipher notes that entering adolescence can make females feel powerless and confused. She describes adolescence as a potentially dangerous time when girls can be at risk of losing themselves, of shifting from a vibrant young girl to a depressed, self-critical adolescent.
Pipher believes the media contributes to this change. TV, movies, magazines, and books often portray women as beautiful creatures and nothing more. This reductive view of women has been around for centuries.
Consider Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a play which was first performed in 1603. When the character Ophelia falls in love with Hamlet, she tries everything to please him, but he spurns her. Rather than accepting this and moving on with her life, Ophelia kills herself. She relies on Hamlet to define her.
In so much of what they read and watch on TV, teenage girls see women whose sense of self-worth depends solely on their attractiveness to men. The messages the media sends again and again are: be attractive, but not too attractive. Don’t be too smart, or guys won’t like you. We all know girls (and women) who diet and sacrifice to try to meet the societal standards of beauty set by magazine covers.
Families Can Play a Role
If they aren’t careful, families—including foster families—can contribute to a girl’s loss of self. Often parents do not realize the impact they have on their children.
For example, many mothers struggle to stay close with their daughters, not realizing that their need for control prevents their daughters from gaining independence. This can spark resentment in some girls because the desire to achieve independence increases as a person grows older.
Or sometimes, if a father is sexist, his daughter may come to believe she is a mere object whose only function is to please men.
The good news is, resource parents and birth parents can work together to ensure children and teens develop a strong sense of self. They can talk together about serving as role-models, and they can try to have the same rules and expectations for the child and talk with each other about roles, boundaries, and relationships. They can talk about why positive parental messages are so important.
Occasionally, there may be times when resource parents and birth parents can’t get on the same page (e.g., even after a talking about it, birth dad still makes sexist comments or birth mom still comments on child’s weight). When this happens, serving as a role model is more important than ever. Continue to send the child positive messages that will help build a foundation for a healthy self.
Promoting Positive Self-Talk
What can you do to promote positive self-talk in the children you care for? First, be mindful of what you say around them. Name calling and “you never” statements can contribute to the child’s negative inner voice. Instead, increase your use of statements such as: I love you. I’m proud of you. I enjoy your company. You make me smile. Thanks for contributing to our family.
Words like these help nurture a positive inner voice. Also, listen to statements the child makes. When you hear something negative (I can’t, I never, etc.), take a three-step approach: find out what’s wrong, reassure the child, and help them choose a positive statement to say instead.
For example, if you hear the child say, I’m stupid, find out the reason for the statement. Was it a bad grade on a test? If so, assure the child they are not “stupid” by pointing out previous good grades, their overall grade in the class, and that this is just one test. Help them come up with alternative things to say to themselves and others, such as I’ll try better next time, or I will study more.
Positive Body Image
Guiding children in developing a positive body image is also important. One way to do this is by focusing on what their bodies are capable of (you’re so fast, you made that look easy, etc.), rather than their appearance (you’re so pretty, cute, etc.). Keeping kids active can help you reinforce positive body messages; involve your child in different sports (e.g., dance, gymnastics, soccer, karate, baseball, swimming, etc.).
Having open conversations related to food choices also helps. Model that food is fuel by balancing healthy and unhealthy options. Water, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats are for every day. Candies, chips, soda, etc. should be occasional indulgences.
Never make negative comments about your own body in front of the child, since this sets an example of how we should feel about our bodies and their capabilities.
Media can be a problem, but it can also contribute to positive body image. There are many books that do this. For example, Elena Favilli’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (2017) is about women who have achieved great things and changed history despite the odds. This collection of bedtime stories will inspire young girls to be confident, to dream big, and to cultivate their strength.
Another great series for readers ages 4-8 is by Jennifer Foswell. These books, which include titles such as My Name is Not Alexander and My Name is Not Isabella, depict children who gain confidence by imagining themselves as men and women from history.
There are also many shows and movies that depict positive female role models. Peg + Cat, Dino Dana, Odd Squad, Anne of Green Gables, Brave, Mulan, and Real Women Have Curves are just a few. Look for works that expose girls to strong female characters who do not necessarily meet society’s standard of beauty but are strong and successful.
As parents, we owe it to our children to find ways to remind them every day that they are fearfully and wonderfully made. Promoting positive self-talk and body image will help them develop a healthy self that can withstand the storms life will inevitably throw their way. Every child should be able to answer the question of who they are and to know in their hearts that they are lovable, capable, and worthwhile.
Jennifer Hull-Rogers is the Licensing Coordinator for Person County DSS.