Stop blaming teenage girls for body image problems

As kids raised as girls grow up, they get tremendous pressure from almost everyone to fight their bodies: 

  • They get pressure to diet (“You don’t really need that cake, do you?” “Why don’t you start coming to Weight Watchers with me?”)
  • They get pressured to exercise to stay thin, but to avoid growing visible muscles
  • They get pressured to dress within a very narrow range
  • Show too little of your body and you get tons of ~helpful~ suggestions both from peers and adults about how to be more attractive/presentable/adult
  • Show too much, and everyone tells you that you have no self respect (and treat you as though you deserve none)
  • They get pressured to wear makeup and to have time consuming hairstyles (“You’d be so pretty!”)
  • But, at the same time, wear too much makeup or the wrong makeup, and people (including parents and other adults) will react with disgust

Some well meaning people have discovered that girls often feel bad about their bodies, and sometimes develop related eating disorders. They often address it in a counterproductive way:

  • They lecture teenage girls about body image
  • And they tell them to feel good about themselves
  • In a way that suggests that it’s their own fault they don’t
  • And that they’re just being shallow by worrying about their makeup, weight, skin, hair, and clothing. Because “true beauty is on the inside, not the outside” and “there’s more to life than beauty”
  • Or they attribute girls’ body image to peer pressure, while ignoring all the things adults do that make girls feel bad about their bodies (eg: if you talk about girls pressuring girls to wear short skirts, but not principals who scornfully send them home, you’re missing the point. If you talk about pressure from teen beauty magazine to be thin, but not the posters in the gym class and cafeteria; you’re missing the point)
  • This is not helpful. If you pressure girls to feel good about their, all you’re doing is adding just another body-related task they’re failing at

This is what I’d like to say to teenage girls, since I know some of y'all are listening

  • It’s not your fault that you’re facing sexist pressure to fight your body
  • Our culture is really hard on women in this regard
  • This is a way in which it’s really, really hard to be a woman
  • People put all kinds of pressure on you to fight yourself and your body at every turn. It’s relentless, and it’s from any number of angles.
  • It shouldn’t be that way. It’s not your fault that people are being mean to you. There’s no amount of weight loss that will make them stop. There’s no outfit range that will get them to stop. You’re being treated badly because sexism, not because of anything you’re doing.
  • It doesn’t ever get better exactly, adult women face all of these pressures too, but it’s not always as overwhelming
  • It’s harder when you’re young and just learning how to cope, and everyone is constantly yelling at you
  • Women learn strategies for coping with this sexist pressure, and they all have upsides and downsides
  • There’s a huge range of different approaches. These are very personal choices, and no one’s business but yours. Deciding that you’re going to spend a lot of time working on makeup and clothing doesn’t make you shallow. Deciding that you’re not going to do that doesn’t mean you’re lazy or immature. And there are any number of combinations, it’s not a decision you have to make the same way for every aspect of expected femininity. It’s personal.
  • As you figure out what works best for you, it can become much, much more bearable
  • It is not your fault if you feel bad about yourself or your body. It’s not a personal failing. Most women and girls feel that way at some point; many women and girls feel that very intensely for years or longer. It’s hard not to.
  • (Also, not everyone who grows up socially perceived as a girl grows up to be a woman. It’s possible that your relationship to your body and your gender is difficult for reasons other than misogyny and sexist pressure on girls. Some people who grow up treated as girls are men or nonbinary. Some people have body dysphoria that is neither caused by misogyny nor relieved by feminism. If you’re dealing with that, that’s not your fault either. It’s also not your fault if you’re unsure or confused. Some people know that they are trans; some people take a long time to figure things out; neither is your fault.)
  • (I want to acknowledge here that this issue affects trans girls, people raised as boys who are nonbinary or unsure about their gender identity, and others. I don’t know how that dynamic works well enough to describe it, but I don’t want to imply that everyone raised as a boy is immune from all pressures directed at girls and women)
  • It helps to build relationships with people you respect and who respect you.

Some resources that help some people:

  • You Get Proud By Practicing  is an amazing poem by Laura Hershey about the deepest kind of pride and self-respect
  • Body positivity blogs can help. So can fat acceptance blogs (even if you are not fat). Fat Girls Doing Things is a good one
  • Blogs by people who are joyfully into makeup and nail art as an end in itself

tl;dr Teenage girls get pressured to feel bad about themselves and their bodies, and then get shamed for feeling bad. If you are responsible for supporting teenage girls: don’t do that. If you are a teenage girl: it’s not your fault. This is hard.