A new school year is well underway. Students everywhere have had to get used to their new classes, teachers, and schedules, as well as navigate their afterschool activities/sports, homework, and possibly jobs. This time of year is also when my Girls’ Group resumes. The group I started three years ago for six tween girls still gathers around my dining room table throughout the school year to discuss a range of issues while we sip tea. Now, these young women are 15 years old. Their interests and concerns are more varied, intellectual, and emotional than the younger versions of themselves.
To kickoff the new year, our first session will focus on body image. As I sit and think about my approach to start the conversation, I find myself replaying a conversation I had with a friend more than 15 years ago. After “Alice” (a fictional name) returned from a winter escape to a warm and sunny destination, she was sharing some of the highlights she experienced on her trip. Amid the description of the local culture, food, and beautiful beaches she enjoyed was her criticism of some of the tourists who, to her dismay, donned bikinis.
“What exactly was your problem with the bikini wearers?” I asked.
“They did not all have bikini bodies,” declared Alice.
“What’s a bikini body,” I asked incredulously.
“You know, one that is thin and doesn’t have fat hanging out,” stated Alice nonchalantly.
“Are you kidding me?” I replied a bit too loudly. “I couldn’t feel more opposite. I’m impressed when women feel comfortable wearing a two-piece swimsuit as so many of us are plagued with some degree of self-loathing that it actually impacts our behavior such as enjoying a day at the beach. If anything, we should be in awe of the self-confidence of the bikini-clad rather than critical.”
My surprise about Alice’s reaction was enhanced by the fact that she is a medical doctor. A role model. She is a family practitioner who surely handles a broad spectrum of health issues and I would assume some emotional and mental health issues too.
Starting at a very young age, children hear messages that strongly suggest if you are not thin and attractive (females) or fit and muscular (males), you are “less than.” These messages are delivered via classic children’s books, movies, music videos, advertisements, and “reality” television, and are often perpetuated by our own family and friends. Learning how to resist these influences is a challenge at any age, but certainly one that young children are not equipped to handle.
As I prepare for the first session of Girls’ Group after our summer hiatus, I am excited for our reunion and looking forward to having a lively discussion and hearing their perspectives on body image. I found a perfect complement to our discussion adapted from Courtney Martin, author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” on Our Bodies Ourselves website. Looking forward to a great kick-off to the new year.