Little girls and big systemic cultural problems

Good Morning America recently ran a segment on what I would term early-onset body image issues – girls as young as 5 and 6 are picking up on the cultural imperative for thinness, and the result is that girls are worrying about their weight before they’re out of the third grade. We’ve known for some time that little girls worry about this stuff, and that girls are starting to diet at younger and younger ages. GMA put together a panel of girls between the ages of 5 and 8 to ask them about diet, exercise, and how they felt about their bodies.

The adult women in these girls’ lives are seemingly all on diets – their mothers, their teacher – and they talk about it around the little girls. While I agree wholeheartedly that a mother’s attitude toward her own body can influence her daughter’s body image, and that girls are influenced by the other examples of womanhood they see around them, I want to resist the “blame the mother” narrative.

The women with whom girls have close and frequent contact do, of course, have a great deal of influence over what kind of a body image those girls grow up to have. But a mother is just one person, one voice in a sea of screaming weight loss ads and “you’re so skinny!” compliments. She is, for all her influence, a drop in the bucket, especially as kids go out into the world and absorb our culture of thinness. Often, all it takes is one comment from a stranger, or one teasing remark from a relative, to undo years of positive body image reinforcement from parents.

Ah yes, the teasing remarks. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part comes at the end, with the admittedly unscientific experiment of holding up photos of other little girls and asking the assembled group to comment on them. Of one photographed girl, the group says that her tummy is too big, that she’d probably be teased at school, and then one of the girls labels her “chubby wubby” right there on camera. The others pick up on the name and it’s repeated several times. In that moment, it’s easy to imagine that phrase being chanted over and over again at the expense of some poor fourth grader.

In that moment, it’s easy to see that it doesn’t matter how hard parents work to inculcate a positive body image in their children: until the culture changes, until we’re all on the same page, until the other little girls are her, and her teachers and coaches have similarly enlightened attitudes, positive parental voices will continue be simply drops in the ocean.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Sarah

    As a survivor and fighter of an eating disorder that has lasted 10 years so far, I can say that I agree with the author of this post. While everyone’s experience is different, I remember thinking I was too fat in kindergarten, around the age of 5 or 6. My mother was, in fact, trying to lose weight at the time and it was really hard for her because of a thyroid issue. Because we didn’t really have a babysitter or anything, I went with my mother to some of her Weight Watchers meetings, and I guess I absorbed more than she thought. She blamed herself in the early stages of my ED. But that’s not her fault.

    It IS largely a cultural issue, because she wasn’t the only influence I had… weight loss advertisements were everywhere when I was in elementary school in the mid-90’s (and still are), and the clothing at the time, even for little girls, was designed for stick-thin, straight figures, which, while there is nothing wrong with any natural body shape, everyone doesn’t have. Even if she had been my only influence, she suffered from her own poor body image with society telling her that she needed to go against what her body was programmed to do and turn food into a mathematical formula instead of using it for fuel.

    Sorry for the novel. Thanks for posting this. I think it’s really important that we as a whole realize how early poor body image affects women and girls, and even men and boys.

  • sex-toy-james

    Woah! That’s a lot of futility voiced right there. If parental influence is just a drop in the ocean, you may as well just have your kids raised by wolves. I’ve got a few months until I dive into the wonderful world of parenting, and if I really thought that all of the influence I’ll have on my kids would amount to a drops in the ocean, I’d be typing “wolves looking to adopt” on Google.

    • davenj

      Worked for Romulus and Remus. And they didn’t even have Google.

      • sex-toy-james

        Even if you’re not lucky enough to have your children raised by wolves, you can still teach your kids some of the valuable conflict resolution skills that they would have learned. Someone making you feel insecure about your weight, bite them in the face!

  • Magpie

    I’d love to see a major news show run a segment like this that actually mentions/implicates the recent rise in intensely fatphobic government-funded “health” programming (yes, I’m talking about Let’s Move), as well as sensationalist news coverage of the “obesity epidemic.”

    I’m sick of people wringing their hands over the total destruction of children’s positive body image (as well as the massive increase in eating disorders) and making vague statements about the influence of “the media” (by which they generally mean women’s magazines), without ever acknowledging that kids are being monitored, ridiculed, and put on diets that amount to starvation by the medical industry, in cooperation with academic institutions, in the name of the government’s War on Obesity. I would be absolutely terrified to be a fat child today, but you can bet that children of all sizes are soaking up the message that fat = a fate worse than death.

    Fat panic is reaching horrifying levels and if we care at all about the mental and physical health of our children, we need to take serious steps to combat the hateful misinformation being spread about “beauty” AND “health” (from ALL sources, not just the ones that are convenient to blame).

    • Dina

      How about the incredibly condescending Swap It, Don’t Stop It campaign in Australia? (The website’s gotten a little better than it used to be, but the ads are horrible. “I’m going to swap sitting for walking!”)

  • Nonny Morgan

    This strikes a chord with me… I’m 26, and when I was 7 or 8, I remember very distinctly saying I was fat and I needed to lose weight. I’m not sure where I picked up on the idea, because I was homeschooled, and I didn’t see other little girls very often at all. My tv watching was closely monitored, too. My mom has a healthy outlook on weight/dieting, though thinking about it, it might have been from my dad, because my dad yo-yo dieted all the time.

    But, it’s not a recent thing, I think. Dieting trends have been going on for a long time, and it’s naive to think that little kids won’t be affected by what they see their parents, their role models, their peers, doing. Cultural fatphobia and hysterics over “childhood obesity” certainly don’t help either; while I don’t have a problem with encouraging healthy eating, it often presents itself as shaming, particularly when you see ads like these in schools. Given all this… it’s sad, but not surprising, that kids are internalizing these negative messages. :(

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Catching up after 3 days of wonky internet service…a few thoughts:

    Taylor not only talks about peers who call her fat, but also mentions a teacher making comments about her running more to make her tummy thinner. Coming from an authority figure, it may give the children even more of a go-ahead than they’d normally think they have to make remarks like this. Maybe the parents should have a discussion with this teacher?

    As for the “unscientific experiment at the end” I’m hoping the girl in the pink dress and the one in the blue shirt who were singled out didn’t catch this news segment! Even with the faces blurred they might figure out they’re the ones being appraised by a group of strange kids.

  • jennifer

    the other problem with the “blame the mother” narrative is that it ignores the fact that the mothers are subject to the same societal pressures as their daughters.

  • Zoe

    I would agree that cultural influences are equally as important, if not more, than parent’s examples. I have no recollection of my mother ever dieting, eating strangely or discussing weight or shapes. But I do remember seeing a photograph of myself in a bikini (brought back from a holiday for me by a friend, not bought by my parents) aged around 7 and being horrified at what I perceived as my ”fat tummy”. I compare myself to my sister and friend and the images of women I saw in magazines or on television, something which continued as I grew older. I developed an eating disorder aged 19, and am still dealing with the effects of that, despite being ”recovered” i.e. a healthy weight. Obviously there are psychological reasons for becoming anorexic, but I am convinced that in many cases culture is just as influential.

    • Dina

      My momma was bulemic before I was born and worked very hard to make sure the same didn’t happen to me… but I still obsessed over my stomach when I hit my teenage years and got that layer of fat on my stomach that post-pubescent women are *supposed* to have.