Back to top

Promoting Healthy Body Image in Girls and Women


A. Introduction:

Women and men, girls and boys, individuals of all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds and occupations experience issues around food and weight preoccupation. Although this article focuses on women's experiences around these issues, it is important to know that men do experience eating and body image problems, and that the definition of masculinity is increasingly being linked to a man's appearance. The research, however, still indicates that the cultural messages around appearance are much more aggressive towards women and that there are significantly more women displaying characteristics of disordered eating than men.

This article explores the food and weight issues that women struggle with, why these problems exist, the consequences and what we can do to promote a healthier body image among women. It is essential to pay close attention to the continuum of food and weight issues, which in addition to eating disorders include emotional eating, yo-yo dieting, and body image dissatisfaction and to not only explore the issues critically but also consider the tools, which help promote a healthier perspective around our bodies


Our Insidious Culture

In the western world society objectifies women's bodies and places more value on the way women look than on any other attribute. Examples of this can be seen every day, from the Sunshine Girl strewn across the Sun's second page to the advertisement for the Auto show recently held in Toronto, which exclaimed " More Cars, More Girls". And at the same time, not any body is acceptable. There is a collective understanding that women in this culture are obliged to conform to a very narrow definition of beauty. This definition of beauty is as follows: white, able-bodied, smooth skin, young and most importantly THIN. Our society relentlessly promotes the glorification of slenderness and at the same time sanctions the degradation of fatness. If a woman does not or is unable to conform, she learns that she will become a target for prejudice, discrimination and bigotry, while a woman who more closely resembles the ideal is rewarded both socially and economically.


A study in one teen adolescent magazine over the course of 20 years found that all of the articles contained in these magazines included statements highlighting that weight loss would improve appearance.


Canadian children in grade three and four say they'd rather lose a parent, get cancer, or live through nuclear war than be fat.

Ideal Vs. Reality

There is such an enormous disparity between what has been deemed an ideal body and what the majority of women can realistically and naturally attain, that it is not surprising that most girls and women develop and constantly struggle with negative and harmful feelings towards themselves and their bodies. Women internalize these messages, which are constantly bombarded at them: being thin is good, successful, happy and exclusively beautiful while being fat is bad, self-indulgent, lazy and ugly. Less than 1% of the female population naturally fits the current beauty ideal, which leave the majority of them struggling to conform.

The women in magazines, on television and in the movies are almost always thin, and in many cases emaciated. Their shapes and sizes are often not natural, but rather artificially maintained through dieting, fasting, smoking and sometimes drugs. Even the images that appear to be real are in many cases not. Pictures in magazines are routinely airbrushed to "enhance" the looks of their models, which means that even models are no longer able to attain the beauty ideal. This leaves many girls and women aspiring to body shapes and sizes that are not only unattainable, but also not even real.


The average American woman is 5'4" and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5'11" and weighs 117 pounds.

How Girls and Women React and the Consequences

The notion that women can and should be in control of their bodies is a dangerous message. They experience guilt and shame around their bodies and begin to compartmentalize themselves: "My legs are flabby", "My butt is huge", "My stomach isn't flat enough", "My breasts are too small". Women spend money, time and considerable effort adjusting, fixing and enhancing their bodies so that they become more acceptable as human beings. They attempt to fix the "problems" through dieting, plastic surgery, weight-loss drugs and excessive exercise.

Women learn to displace their emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration, onto their bodies in an attempt to gain control over their lives. The cycles of dieting, bingeing, fasting and exercising wreak havoc on women's bodies and minds. These behaviours can become self-perpetuating, and do lead some women to develop eating disorders.


90% of women experience body-image dissatisfaction


80% of women have dieted by the age of 18 years


Up to 15% of women have many of the symptoms of an "eating disorder"


70% of women and 35% of men are dieting at any given time

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


What can we do?

1. Educate and Develop Personal Skills

· Ensure that women are provided with appropriate information that allows them to make informed decisions around food and weight issues.

· Encourage the idea that healthy and beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

· Provide girls, boys, women and men with information, material and tools that challenges and changes their current values, actions and behaviours (healthy eating, self-care, self-expression, self-confidence).

· Examine and make the link between the social pressures to be thin and sex role stereotyping, racial and ethnic stereotyping, weight prejudice, violence against women and children.

· Teach and encourage the use of healthy coping mechanisms.

2. Strengthen Community Action:

· Improve access to information and resources.

· Encourage and provide opportunities for community members to organize self help and advocacy groups.

· Mobilize communities to examine the issues in their own communities and develop appropriate services and supports.

3. Advocate and Develop Policies:

· Advocate for a change in the media images; demand a more diverse representation of body shapes and sizes in positive and affirming roles.

· Challenge sex role stereotyping.

· Fight the notion that thinness is the only acceptable beauty and health standard.

· Develop and implement policies around size acceptance and the acceptance of diversity, competency standards for the fitness industry, and consumer right standards for the weight loss industry.

· Encourage the health sectors to move towards health promotion, rather than focusing only on secondary prevention and treatment.

· Set standards around the educational requirements of health professionals and educators around these issues.

4. Change Environments:

· Create supportive environments that enhance the opportunity for the development of healthy body image.

· Increase the acceptance of a diverse range of acceptable body types by providing role models and healthy resources.

How can we implement these changes?

These changes need to be implemented at every level in our society: individual, network, organizational and societal. It's important for the positive and healthy messages to be consistent, so that individuals are not faced with contradictory messages. A young girl will be confused if she receives information at school about accepting a variety of body sizes, and then she goes home to find her mother dieting and degrading her own body. Society needs to be making changes at all levels to successfully promote a healthier body image for women.

Changes that we can make as individuals:

· Examine our own beliefs around body shape and size and food.

· Consider ways in which we might discriminate against or judge individuals who don't fit the beauty standard.

· Educate ourselves around the inefficiencies and dangers of dieting and other weight-control methods.

· Acquire an understanding of how the transition into adolescence places girls at risk for the development of body image concerns and eating problems.

· Become an informed buyer and a critical viewer of the media - question their motives.

· Exercise for health benefits - for the feeling of making our bodies move, not to lose weight.

· Take part in healthy, intuitive eating, not emotional eating. Eliminate the idea of "good" foods and "bad" foods in your diet.

· Don't restrict our activities or life goals until we reach a certain weight or shape.

· Be a positive role model by respecting our bodies and the bodies of others.

Changes that we can make as part of a network (Family, Friends and Other Support Systems):

· Encourage our children to express their feelings, doubts and insecurities around their bodies and discuss how they view themselves compared to the images and peers around them.

· Educate those around us on the dangers of dieting.

· Provide our children with books and toys that focus on what they do, think and feel rather than way they look.

· Provide girls with the same encouragement and opportunities that are available to boys.

· Help children understand the implications of media images.

· Educate boys as well, around the stereotypes and discrimination that exists in our culture.

· Encourage men to be involved in the positive reinforcement of healthy body ideals as well, and be role models for both their daughters and sons.

Changes that our organizations, schools, businesses and communities can make:

· Take steps to mobilize and strengthen community action.

· Include and involve students, parents, athletes, coaches, and all members of the community in health promotion initiatives.

· Become familiar with available resources (including books, toys, pictures, and posters) designed to promote positive body image and diversity of images in a classroom or group setting as well as making these resources available to interested individuals.

· Develop and enforce policies around body related comments and unhealthy behaviours (particularly in schools, and athletic programs).

· Include curriculum on disordered eating and body image dissatisfaction in schools at all levels.

· Provide opportunities for young people to become involved in advocacy groups so that they have an opportunity to speak out and take action.

· Provide opportunities for peer counseling.

· Join or start a coalition to address issues of food and weight in our communities.

· Participate in campaigns such as International No Diet Day; Love Your Body and Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Changes that our society and culture can make:

· Include food and weight issues as a high priority in the health agenda and provide funding for health promotion.

· Promote a range of beauty ideals; use more realistic and diverse images in popular culture.


To make any lasting and substantial changes around the issues of food and weight preoccupation of women, we each have to first examine and challenge our own beliefs and values and implement changes to become stronger and more influential role models. Adults must take more responsibility to implement these changes in our networks, organizations and our society. We must continue to work towards creating a society where women of all shapes and sizes are treated equally, with respect, and where women are valued for their skills, knowledge and abilities.