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049: How to raise a girl with a healthy body image
22nd October 2017 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:51:40

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Folks, this one is personal for me.  As someone with an ~ahem~ family history of disordered thinking about body image, it is very, very high on my priority list to get this right with my daughter.  Dr. Renee Engeln, author of the book Beauty Sick, helps us sort through issues like:

  1. Should I tell my daughter she’s pretty?
  2. What should I say when she asks me if she’s pretty?
  3. Is teaching our daughters about media literacy – the ability to critique images they see in the media – enough to protect them, or not?
  4. …and so much more!

I know there’s a lot more to raising a girl than just this issue, and in time I hope to find another expert to discuss how we can raise daughters who aren’t limited by broader societal expectations, but there’s enough on this topic to make it an episode by itself.

In the show, we discuss a prompt you can use to write a self-compassionate letter to yourself as a way of recognizing all the amazing things your body can do. Professor Engeln actually sent me two of them; you can find these below.

You’ll have to listen to the episode to find out why this picture is here:


  1. Body-Compassion letter (based on Kristin Neff’s exercises available at

For the next 10 minutes, you will be writing a letter to yourself. The letter should be all about your body, but it should be from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend. Think about your body from the perspective of a friend who cares about you. What would your friend want to tell you about your body? If you run out of things to write, re-write what you already have, perhaps with different wording.

Think about this imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. Imagine that this friend can see all the strengths and all the weaknesses of your body, including any aspects of your body that you may view as flawed or imperfect. Reflect upon what this friend would say about your body, knowing that you are loved and accepted with your body exactly as it is, with all your body’s very human imperfections. This friend recognizes the limits of human nature and is kind and forgiving toward you. In his/her great wisdom, this friend understands your life history and the millions of things that have happened in your life to give you the body you have in this moment.

Write a letter to yourself, about your body, from the perspective of this imaginary friend. What would this friend say about your body from the perspective of unlimited compassion? How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the pain you feel if you tend to judge the flaws and imperfections of your body harshly? What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all bodies have both strengths and weaknesses? As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of his/her acceptance of your body, caring, and desire for your health and happiness. Above all else, be kind, understanding, and compassionate toward your body.


2. Body Functionality letter:

For the next 10 minutes, you will be writing a letter to yourself. The letter should be all about what your body does. Think about all your body does and how it helps you do the things you want to do each day. Focus on everything your body can do for you and write a letter to yourself about that topic. If you run out of things to write, re-write what you already have, perhaps with different wording.

Think about all the strengths of your body in terms of everything it can do. What has your body allowed you to do throughout your life? Think about the different parts of your body and how they each play a role in helping you do what you need to do each day.



Engeln, R. (2017). Beauty Sick: How the cultural obsession with appearance hurts girls and women. New York, NY: HarperCollins. (Affiliate link)

Fredrickson, B.L., Roberts, T.A., Noll, S.M., Quinn, D.M., & Twenge, J.M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75(1), 269-284.

Neff, K.D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5(1), 1-12.

Neff, K.D., & McGehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity 9, 225-240.


Read Full Transcript



Jen:                                      [00:39]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode is going to be a difficult but an important one for me. So you all know that I have a daughter who’s heading towards being three and a half and a while back, we did an episode with Dr. Christia Brown where we talked about how the differences between boys and girls at a young age are almost entirely based on culture and socialization rather than on genetic factors and that’s still true, but I wanted to take the next step in thinking about this because it seems to me as there are the impacts of culture become magnified rather than diminished as girls get older. And the effects of that culture are really not kind to our girls. And I’ve seen this firsthand myself. Those of you who listen to my episode with Dr. Atle Dyregrov on the topic of talking with children about death know that my mother died when I was young and what I didn’t mention in that episode was that she was anorexic and she actually starved herself to death.

Jen:                                      [01:32]                   So we talk about a lot of topics related to child development on this show. And for the most part I kind of feel as though I have some wiggle room and whether or not I get them right. But today we’re gonna talk about raising emotionally healthy girls, and I really feel as though this is one issue that I cannot and must not screw up. So this is a must listen episode if you have daughters, but if you only have sons I’d say don’t turn us off just yet because a lot of the things that make raising girls so difficult are related to how we raise our boys. So we’re going to cover a lot more detail on that topic in another episode very soon.

Jen:                                      [02:06]                   So here to guide us through some of the issues related to helping girls develop a positive body. Image is professor Renee Engeln who is an award winning professor of psychology at Northwestern University. She’s the author of Beauty Sick: How The Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals and conferences and she speaks to groups across the country. Her TEDx talk at the University of Connecticut has more than 400,000 views on YouTube and she also blogs regularly for Psychology Today. Welcome Professor Engeln.

Dr. Engeln:                         [02:35]                   Thank you for having me.

Jen:                                      [02:37]                   All right, so your book is called Beauty Sick. What is beauty sickness and what are some examples of it?

Dr. Engeln:                         [02:43]                   For me, beauty sickness is what happens when you get so worried about how you look when you get so caught up in the mirror that you don’t have the time and the energy and the resources left to put into the things that you really care about, to things that matter more to you than how you look.

Jen:                                      [03:02]                   Is this really a thing that there are people who cannot literally focus on what they’re doing because they are spending so much time thinking about how they look?

Dr. Engeln:                         [03:11]                   So I think we want to think of it as a continuum, right? So I don’t know any woman who can never focus because she’s always thinking about how she looks, but I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t had those moments where you get distracted in the middle of an important meeting or where you’re late to something because you just can’t get your clothes looking quite like you want them to look or where you’re exhausted because you had to get up earlier in order to do more makeup and put more effort into your hair. So we pay these costs and a lot of little ways throughout the day and throughout our lives, but they add up to a cumulative effect.

Jen:                                      [03:48]                   Yeah. I remember an example from the book about, I think it was girls and boys together at a prom event and the girls were all dressed in something that has to be hitched up and hitched down or something would be revealed and that’s sort of a facetious example, but if you imagine that it happens on a somewhat lesser scale on a daily basis in offices when you’re wearing heels and a skirt that you have to make sure you sit in the right way and…

Dr. Engeln:                         [04:10]                   And it, it takes you out of the moment, right? Yeah. I always tell people when I give that example of those girls I saw in that restaurant, I don’t care that they’re wearing strapless dresses or skirts are short. That’s not the issue. The issue is that it kept pulling them away from what they were doing. It kept interrupting their conversations. It’s like carving a little piece of your consciousness off and then dedicating it to solely monitoring how you look to make sure everything’s in place and everything looks okay and we don’t really see men having to focus on that in the same way women do.

Jen:                                      [04:46]                   And I’m thinking specifically of one of the examples in your book about a girl who’s… The pseudonym she chose is “Artemis.” Can you tell us about her?

Dr. Engeln:                         [04:55] Artemis was a high school girl when I talked to her. She was around 17 years old and Artemis estimated to me that she spent 50 percent of her mental energy thinking about how she looked and for her she was particularly focused on her body size. She thought she was too heavy.

Dr. Engeln:                         [05:12]                   She wanted to be thinner. She used the term brain space, which I really liked. So she said half my brain space is for thinking about my body; half of it slept for thinking about school. That’s how she experienced herself as being sort of carved up and this is the same girl who told me when I asked her about some of the goals she had, she said, well, I can’t really think about those goals. I can’t think about getting my brain where I want it to be until I get my body where I want it to be. That’s the kind of pressure we’re talking about.

Jen:                                      [05:40]                   Okay. Because women tend to think that if I was just a bit thinner, my experience of the world would be different and better in some way. Right?

Dr. Engeln:                         [05:49]                   And let’s be honest, there’s a lot of stigma in this culture around weight. We focus on appearance a lot, but it’s not true that changing how you look is going to magically open the door to happiness. If there’s no evidence that that is the case. There’s a great big literature on that out there on happiness and well-being and finding meaning in your life and the things you can pursue to get there. None of them have to do with spending more time in front of the mirror and they all have to do with spending less.

Jen:                                      [06:19]                   Okay. So I’m thinking social media probably plays a fairly large role in all of this these days. Is that true?

Dr. Engeln:                         [06:27] Absolutely. I say this in my book. I feel bad about it, but I mean it that I thank my lucky stars I did not have to be a young girl or an adolescent girl at a time when there was social media.

Jen:                                      [06:38]                   Me too.

Dr. Engeln:                         [06:40]                   It is unbelievably hard and when I talk to young girls and teenagers and even young women through adulthood about what they face on social media, it is not a healthy scene out there. I had a girl who came to hear me talk, tell me that she posts a picture on Instagram and if she gets 50 likes then she can feel okay about how she looks that day, but if she doesn’t get 50 then she knows she doesn’t look okay and will spend the whole day worried about it. And this is not a healthy way to live. Right. Instagram likes are not a cure for low competence. If that worked, we’d only have to do it once; we’d throw a picture, you’d get some likes and you’d think, oh, right, I do feel good about how I look, but it’s never going to be enough and every time you post one of those pictures where you’re trying to look sexy or skinny or perfect or filtered or whatever you’re doing, it’s also making everyone who sees that picture, think about how they look and wonder if they look good enough and it perpetuates that cycle of focusing on how we look and how other women look. It takes up a lot of our mental energy.

Jen:                                      [07:54]                   I was just watching your TED talk before I got on the phone with you and I saw you demonstrate the pose that women. Can you describe it?

Dr. Engeln:                         [08:05]                   I learned this from my students and it’s been a while, I think since they first showed me me; maybe even 10 years or so and it started with skinny arms, skinny arm. I feel like a lot of women know at this point when I see pictures of women online on Instagram or Facebook, it’s rare that they don’t have skinny arms, so that’s when you purchase your hand on your hip and get your arm out at a real sharp angle. Right? And my students tell me that so that your arm doesn’t smoosh against your body. Right? So it makes your arm looks skinnier and I think, oh, okay, that’s one thing.

Dr. Engeln:                         [08:34]                   And then they tell me there’s more, right? You have to