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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