Body image preoccupies the minds of teen girls

January 31, 1999|By Susan Reimer

IT'S A THIGH THING. As soon as our daughters notice they have laps, they notice their thighs. And they gasp in dismay. "Oh, God. My thighs are, like, huge!" "I can't believe how flabby my thighs are. They even jiggle!" "My thighs are the worst. Thunder thighs."

This tedious conversation from the back seat is familiar to any mother who chauffeurs girls around. It is a wonder these self-conscious girls don't insist on standing during the ride.

And, as any mother knows, this body talk is not designed to fill an awkward silence. These girls are saying about themselves what they are sure their friends are thinking. It is their defense against the ridicule they are certain is just under the surface of their friendships.

Thighs necessarily change their shape when a girl sits down, and they've been doing that since her feet dangled over the edge of the potty for the first time.

She might not even notice she had them if she didn't insist on wearing shorts, skirts and bathing suits cut clear up to here. Isn't it bad enough that she worries about her weight? Must she worry about specific body parts?

What is the thigh thing?

"This is part of a larger shift in American culture and our idealization of the female body below the belt," says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls."

"It's not just a pretty face and a big bust anymore. It is a slimmed and highly toned pelvic area, buttocks and thighs. They are objects of desire as well as symbols of success."

As such, Brumberg says, the thighs are just another body part a young girl can despise because it does not resemble the ones she sees on bone-thin fashion models or Barbie dolls.

"Thighs are as important to young girls today as waists were to the girls of the Victorian era," says Brumberg, whose work combines the fields of history, human development and women's studies.

A girl's sudden preoccupation with thighs is not just a function of gravity or more evidence of neurotic narcissism. With puberty comes estrogen and with it a change in the distribution of the body fat needed to store it. The result is a fullness and a roundness of the buttocks and thighs that varies from girl to girl depending on her genetic code.

The fact that young girls acknowledge this change with such self-deprecation is another indication that they are at least ambivalent about their changing bodies, if not full of hate for them, because they no longer resemble the childlike and extremely thin contemporary ideal.

Girls have added thighs to breasts and skin and hair -- a growing list of body parts to be anxious about.

"They use the language of food and body to talk about these anxieties: 'If I could only lose 10 pounds, everything would be perfect,' " Brumberg says.

As mothers, we have to distract our daughters from this futile preoccupation with their body type and body parts. But the distractions have to be real, Brumberg says.

We can't just say, "Oh, don't worry about that," because they do.

We can't simply say, "There are more important things in life" without helping them find something that is.

"We have to encourage girls to think about what their bodies can do instead of what they look like," says Brumberg. "I believe in athleticism for girls. We have to move the kids off the beauty thing to the health thing."

And then maybe they will forget about the thigh thing.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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