Young girls need a shot in the arm - not the kind that’s given in a doctor’s office but one that’s given at home, to inoculate them from negative influences and pressures they face every day, according to a therapist at The Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks.

Their self-esteem is at stake.

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Critical comments about their appearance as well as pervasive media images which define the “perfect body” or “flawless skin” fuel girls’ feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, said Emily Emerson, who counsels individuals and couples for The Village.      

Girls who don’t receive positive messages that reinforce their personal sense of worth are at risk for developing low self-esteem which can lead to troublesome or even self-destructive behaviors, a study by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund has shown.

“If you’re not getting that support at home (‘you are beautiful just the way you are’) and you hear that negative comment, it can really affect you even more,” Emerson said.

Cutting remarks about appearance or weight “can be so degrading,” she said.

“It’s most hurtful when it comes from other girls or friends. Girls don’t realize the effect that (those comments) could have.”

They also don’t realize that they’re repeating the behavior.

In her work, Emerson said, “Girls have shared how they feel bullied. They are really hurt by (these comments). But they’re doing the same thing to others. It’s a cyclical kind of thing.

“It’s interesting that they don’t even realize what they’re doing.”

Self-esteem is also tied to academic and sports performance, she said. “If you’re not doing well in a certain area, it could damage your self-esteem in general. It’s hard to find the positive... 

“We forget that we need to be ‘encouragers,’” she said.  

Destructive activity 

Low self-esteem has been cited as an underlying reason for negative behavior in girls.

According to a national report, 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking or drinking when they feel badly about themselves.

Seven in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members, the report revealed.

Seventy-one percent of girls with low self-esteem feel their appearance does not measure up, including not feeling pretty enough, thin enough, or stylish or trendy enough.

A girl’s self-esteem is more strongly related to how she views her own body shape and body weight, than how much she actually weighs, the report stated.    

The report, “About Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem,” revealed that 25 percent of girls with low self-esteem resort to injuring themselves on purpose or cutting when feeling badly about themselves, compared to four percent of girls with high self-esteem.

Twenty-five percent of teen girls with low self-esteem practice disordered eating - starving themselves, refusing to eat, or over-eating and throwing up - when feeling badly about themselves, compared to seven percent of girls with high self-esteem.

The research was conducted by StrategyOne, an applied research consulting firm, in 2008.  

The tendency for girls to verbally berate themselves may be something they’ve learned at home. Fifty-seven percent of all girls have a mother who criticizes her own looks, the report found.

Judging appearance

“Appearance is one (aspect) we hear about over and over,” said Emerson who leads a group, “Girls 360,” that is sponsored by The Village for girls who are 13 to 17 years old. The group gathers for a two-hour meeting once a week; a new session begins this fall.  

Girls 360 members discuss topics such as self-esteem, female health issues, skin care, friendships and healthy relationships, she said. 

“It’s a nice way for girls … to ask questions and have open discussion,” Emerson said.

She asks the girls “to make a list of expectations we have for themselves and our bodies,” she said.

Media emphasis on thinness can cause some girls to fixate on attaining a particular weight or clothing size “when, in reality, it’s not possible to even be that size.” 

Other media messages about having flawless skin can prompt younger girls, for example, to use more make-up, she said.

In an effort to dissect some of these messages, Emerson asks the girls to look at images in popular magazines, noting that some have been photographically manipulated. 

The model in the picture? “That’s not really her,” she said she tells them.

“It’s so powerful to break down those things we put into our minds.”     

She asks the girls to think and talk about “what they want for themselves, and what is important to them,” she said.

The girls use various activities, including journaling, to help them capture and reflect on these ideas - all aimed at building positive self-esteem and a healthy body-image.

“We talk about, what does a good friend do? What would they do for you?” Emerson said, as a way to encourage them to consider the quality of their friendships.

Building self-esteem from ‘day one’

Emerson said building a girl’s self-esteem starts in infancy.

“From my perspective, it (begins) from day one, providing children with positive self-worth. That support creates security for children.”

Support is the key element throughout childhood, she said.

“It’s unfair to assume that just because you live in a nice home and have a lot of things that you have no problems with self-esteem. You may still have unsupportive parents.”

The vast majority (93 percent) of the girls with low self-esteem want their parents to change their behavior towards them in at least one way, according to the Dove report, including:

  • Wishing to be understood better (60 percent of girls with low self-esteem said);
  • Being listened to more (52 percent), and
  • Spending more time with them (43 percent).