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Body-image pressure inundates teen girls

By Latha Erickson
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(CNN) -- The standardized image is pasted all over the mass media. Whether it's Hollywood, the runway or glossy magazines, the message is very clear: Look like this and be sexy.

"This" for women is often a rail-thin size zero. Tyra Banks, a model who has gained weight since her Sports Illustrated cover days, recently found herself defending her shape on national television and in People magazine.

"I get so much mail from young girls who say, 'I look up to you, you're not as skinny as everyone else, I think you're beautiful,' " she told People. "So when they say that my body is 'ugly' and 'disgusting,' what does that make those girls feel like?"

Body image is one reflection of how we perceive ourselves. Girls are three times more likely than boys to have a negative body image, according to the National Mental Health Information Center. (Teens, body image and drug abuse )

Catherine Hill, research director for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, says it shouldn't be surprising that middle-school girls are so concerned with their body image. What is disheartening, she says, is that it overtakes other aspects of their lives. The expectations can be overwhelming.

She cites the example of the Dr. Barbie doll. Dr. Barbie looks exactly like cheerleader Barbie. So, Hill says, "Not only do we want you to become a doctor, a physicist, or an astronaut, but you better not deviate from the standardized body image that we continue to impose on girls."

One factor that can help girls overcome their worries is a strong male role model, says Girl Power, a public education campaign sponsored by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Studies have found that a strong father figure can help boost a girl's confidence.

Joe Kelly, president of Dads & Daughters, a nonprofit organization, is helping promote this idea. He says dads need to be aware of the culture's influence on girls and how damaging it can be to their body image and well-being.

Kelly said that rather than focus on physical appearance, dads should focus on other qualities, such as how smart, creative or talented a daughter is.

"Focus on what her brain does, what her mind does and what her spirit does," he says. "What her body does and not on how it looks, because that's not why we have our bodies. We don't have our bodies for their appearance -- we have our bodies for what they can do and what it helps us bring to the world."


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