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Self image in girls

Girls get many messages about how they should look and behave. These start when girls are very young, and not all of them are healthy messages.

The increasing numbers of sexualised images of girls in the media and on social media suggests to girls that their worth is judged on how they look or their sexual appeal and behaviour.

This sexualisation of girls can affect their psychological development and mental health. It also affects how women and girls are viewed and treated more broadly.

It is important to help girls develop a positive self-image and good self- esteem, value themselves and learn to question messages that sexualise or exploit depict girls.

Key points

  • Sexualisation occurs when a person's worth is judged on their sexual appeal and behaviour to the exclusion of other characteristics.
  • These messages tell girls that physical appearance, beauty and sexiness are what matter, and that sexual attractiveness is a part of childhood experience.
  • These messages are present in social media, advertising, television, electronic gaming, books and newspapers and in increasingly available pornography.
  • Some of these messages encourage the sexualisation of girls from a very early age, before they are emotionally or physically ready.
  • Exploitation of children, particularly girls, as sexual objects has a detrimental effect on adolescent development, increasing the risk of depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
  • Boys and men can be the target of sexualised messages and images, but research shows that girls and women are portrayed in a sexual manner more often.

What parents and carers can do

Educate

  • Teach girls to value themselves for who they are, rather than how they look. If you have boys, teach them to value girls as friends, sisters and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects. And you can advocate for change with manufacturers and media producers.
  • Ask questions such as
    • "Why do you think there is so much pressure on girls to look a certain way?”
    • "What do you like most about the girls you want to spend time with?"
    • "Do these qualities matter more than how they look?"
    • “What do you think of the different roles that are usually given to boys and girls?”
  • Teach boys that girls should not be judged by how they look or what they are wearing.
  • Find out what your school teaches so that you can follow up on what children are learning at school. Let the school know if you think there are gaps in what they are teaching.
  • Always tell the child you are glad that they asked questions, whatever you really feel, but give yourself time to answer if you need it, and tell children what they need to know even if they don’t ask.

Tune in and talk

  • Tune in and talk with your children. Be aware of how your children are using the internet and social media, reading magazines and watching TV or movies.
  • Talk about body safety, sex and sexuality with your children from an early age and often. Effective sex education programs discuss media, peer, and cultural influences on sexual behaviours and decisions, how to make safe choices, and what makes healthy relationships.
  • Girls who are overly concerned about their appearance may have difficulty focusing on other things. Try to encourage girls to choose clothing that is comfortable, practical and expresses who they are.

Speak up, and try to see it from their perspective

  • If you don't like the choice your children make such as a TV show or outfit, explain why you have this opinion. A conversation with children about the issue will be more effective than simply banning the product.
  • Support campaigns, companies, and products that promote positive images of girls. Complain to manufacturers, advertisers, television and movie producers, and retail stores when products sexualise girls.
  • Keep in mind that dress can be an important social code for girls. Understand that looking different and reacting against their parents’ generation may be part of growing up.

Encourage

  • Encourage extracurricular activities such as sport, music, art that emphasise talents, skills, and abilities over physical appearance.
  • Find ways to celebrate being female. This might be a special lunch, a girls’ day out, or flowers to mark when a girl gets her first period.

Provide healthy role models

  • Provide healthy models for your children. What you watch, look at online or buy influences your sons and daughters too.
  • Take care about how much you talk about diets, or pass comments on your own body image. It can be more helpful to talk about healthy eating, and to show children that heath is about many more things than just weight.
  • Mothers and fathers should be careful not to criticise their daughters or sons about how they look. This can create an unhealthy attitude towards appearances.
  • Fathers can be particularly important in the development of their daughter’s self image and their son’s attitudes towards women. The way men treat and talk about the women in the family and women in general is a powerful example of how to behave for their children.
  • Encouraging your children to find healthy heroes is important. Talk about people who really display the characteristics you want your child to copy. This helps your child understand how people demonstrate real worth in the world.

Be real and maintain a balance

  • Help your kids focus on what’s really important: what they think, feel, and value. Help them build strengths that will allow them to achieve their goals and develop into healthy adults. Remind your children that everyone is unique, and that it’s unhelpful to judge people solely by their appearance.
  • Try to take advantage of opportunities that arise in conversations, but do not become too pre-occupied with all the experimentation your daughter tries in her dress or mannerisms. Remember that it is your example and values that your children will often copy.
  • Remember, too, that despite differences, maintaining a good relationship with your daughter is paramount.

Seeking help

If you think your child is having difficulty developing a positive self image and self-esteem and it is affecting your child's day-to-day life, a psychologist may be able to help.

Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in diagnosing and treating a range of mental health concerns, including poor self image and esteem.

If your child is referred to a psychologist by your GP, you might be eligible for a Medicare rebate. Ask your psychologist or GP for details.

There are number of ways to access a psychologist. You can:

  • use the Australia-wideFind A PsychologistTM Service or call 1800 333 497
  • ask your GP or another health professional to refer you.

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