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What You Can Learn From 'Girls': Damage-Proof Your Self-Esteem

The media’s unrealistic images of women can crush your confidence. Here’s how the star of HBO’s “Girls” and your family can keep your self-esteem high.

June 7th, 2012

Jojo Whilden / HBOLena Dunham stars in "Girls"
Lena Dunham stars in "Girls"

If you’ve watched even one episode of HBO’s new series, “Girls,” chances are you’ve seen the following: awkward sex, at least one post-adolescent existential dilemma and the star Lena Dunham’s belly rolls. The show’s 26-year-old creator/writer/director/star is clearly comfortable exposing her curves for all of the premium-cable-subscribing world to see, but some of the viewing and reviewing public aren't quite ready for it.

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A New York magazine feature called out her not-made-for-TV “pear-shaped” body and the frequency with which she “films herself nude, with her skin breaking out, her belly in folds, chin doubled.” Blogs are, naturally, atwitter with commentary and analysis. The word “fleshy” abounds. And Vanity Fair deputy editor Bruce Handy wonders on his blog, “So is this the most transgressive thing a female artist can do in 2012: be fat, naked and unashamed on TV?”

Whether or not Dunham’s bare unabashedness is a pinnacle of feminist expression is up for debate. But it may be the breath of fresh air women need since we can’t turn on the TV, open a magazine or go to the movies without being bombarded with beauty’s equivalent of the One Percent—and watching our self-esteem take a nosedive when we fail to measure up.

But seeing real women’s bodies isn’t the only way to feel good about our own figures. According to a study published last month in the journal Sex Roles, a supportive network of family and friends is the best defense against the self-esteem-damaging effects of the media.

“If a young woman is feeling this pressure from peers, the media and society as a whole to achieve a thin-and-beautiful ideal, that directly relates to body dissatisfaction,” says the study’s lead author, Shannon Snapp, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families in Tucson, A.Z. “But if you have a really supportive network, that buffers the impact the rest of society will have on that perceived idea of thinness.”

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Dr. Snapp and her collaborators surveyed 301 women in their first year of college to investigate the “protective” effects of five factors that can influence body image.

1. Loads of family support. Snapp found that young women who come from a supportive and nurturing home life don’t take societal standards of beauty so much to heart. Feeling less pressure to look a certain way makes women feel better about the bodies they have.

“If a girl experiences open communication and quality time with family, including regular family meals, this builds a positive foundation, and she will be less likely to look to cultural standards of beauty as her standard for worth and value,” explains the study’s co-author, Laura Choate, an associate professor in the department of educational theory, policy and practice at Louisiana State University. “When she feels loved and fully accepted for who she is, she will feel less compelled to strive for the unrealistic thin-and-beautiful standard in order to feel okay about herself.”

Janet Roberts, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in body image and parenting, adds: “Parents need to reinforce, by words and actions, behaviors that are related to those positive qualities they wish their children to develop. Likewise, parents can de-emphasize those cultural stereotypes that are so damaging to everyone who is less than ‘perfect,’ which includes all of us. This requires being mindful about not reinforcing those ideals. For example, a parent would not want to frequently say things like, ‘You're so pretty!’ instead emphasizing that their child has a beautiful heart, is kind, intelligent and strong.”

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What’s more, parents need to set positive examples. “It is important to remember that girls are watching us,” Choate points out. “Although many parents, particularly mothers,
 are careful not to say anything critical to their daughters about their bodies, moms may not realize that their own frequent diets and complaints about their own bodies can be very damaging to their daughter's developing body image.”

2. Low levels of perceived societal pressure. Women who internalize the pressure to attain society’s standards of beauty are most susceptible to body image issues and feeling dissatisfied with how they look.

“Media is one of the worst culprits,” Snapp warns. “If you know that some particular shows are going to put these images out there and make you feel bad, stop watching them."

3. Rejection of the superwoman ideal. The idea that we have to do it all—be successful career women, caring wives and nurturing mothers, who always look great—can make it seem like we’re never good enough. The result? Our self-esteem can take a big hit.

Women who are able to reject this superwoman ideal may be better at setting realistic expectations and not beating themselves up for not being perfect in every category, which helps preserve self-esteem.

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