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"My biggest worry is my looks": The secret struggle of 10-year-old girls.

On this day in Sydney a young girl, about 10, is looking for a dress to wear for her First Holy Communion. 

She arrives at a store with her mother; her face brimming with excitement and expectation. Eventually, after a few dresses are tried on, her mother takes the young part-time job assistant aside, and asks whether there are any dresses that might hide her tween daughter’s arms.

The young girl leaves the store, crest-fallen; her spirit crushed.

“Do not tell your daughters that they are fat; just do not,’’ Dannielle Miller, author and teen educator, says.

Watch: How to help improve your daughter's body image. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

The advice around tween girls and body image and how to deal with it is unanimous. Don’t talk about your weight. Don’t talk about the weight of others. Talk about how the body functions, not how it looks. Don’t talk about food in terms of how it will change the body. Ensure weight is not the subject of jokes in the house. Discourage dieting.

But after researching 10-year-old girls across Australia - and seeking the counsel of 2000 parents, 100 middle school teachers and experts like school principals, counsellors and parenting experts - it’s not what is happening. Girls are crying themselves to sleep over their appearance, and while many mothers worry about how their daughter sees herself, many are at a loss to help.

“I’m surprised at how aware she is about her body. And how concerned she gets if she thinks she’s put on any weight,’’ one mother said.

“Her cousins are on TikTok as young as eight (and) always pouting… and (she’s) complaining she is fat. So sad,’’ another said.

"Girls are crying themselves to sleep over their appearance." Image: Getty.

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And this from a third mother with two tween daughters: "I just want them to love themselves and their bodies."

One school principal worries that many mothers still talk too openly about their weight, and the weight of others and about what they want to wear or look like. "It’s the risk of what we do as parents, and the things we say and the things we project, that makes a difference," she said. "I think it’s the age group of 20-40-year-old women who are impacting our little girls." It’s a genuine and heartfelt appraisal, and one that is reiterated by others.  

"It’s okay to be the shape you are. You’re 10!" You can hear the exasperation in the voice of Miami State High School principal Susan Dalton. 

Brisbane Girls Grammar School psychologist Tara McLachlan says the body image issues facing our children are heartbreaking because girls often want to change what is not possible. 

"It’s hard when it’s something like the colour of their skin, or their height, or things that they just can’t change about themselves," she says. “And I think it starts at 10 - they just want to fit in and be like everyone else.’’

"I just want to look different," one 10-year-old girl told me. “My biggest worry is my looks,’’ another said. “I worry about being overweight,’’ says another. Others described themselves as being “too fat’’ to continue dancing or swimming. Teachers, too, said it was not uncommon for girls to start to “double tog’’ or wear one swimsuit over another at swimming classes at this age, because they were embarrassed by their bodies.

Cyber-safety Susan McLean says many girls will think the doctored photographs filling their screens are genuine.

"Many girls will think the doctored photographs filling their screens are genuine." Image: Getty.

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"If they have access to social media, then they are getting this total news feed of images that you and I know are photoshopped. You and I know they aren’t real," she says. Girls need to be taught to analyse critically what they see and hear.  

The coronavirus pandemic had brought with it something scary, Susan McLean says. She knows of numerous cases where teachers tried to provide lessons – academic and performing arts – via Zoom or a similar platform. 

Children as young as 10 refused, because they were required to appear on video and didn’t like the way they looked.

The list of complaints by girls about their bodies runs to pages. Wrong shaped nose. Wobbly knees. Pimples marring their face. Braces making them ugly. The wrong coloured hair. And being too tall is now especially bad, with girls aged nine, 10 and 11 raising their height as a flaw in their appearance repeatedly. 

“I don’t fit in, especially since I’m quite tall,’’ Mia says. “I usually kind of feel like an outsider.’’ Alexis says she is tall too. “It just means you have no friends. I wish there was a way of not being tall.’’

 The words “fit in’’ were the two most common I heard during 18 months of research. Girls want to “fit in’’ to be friends, “fit in’’ by looking like others, “fit in’’ in the clothes they wear and the interests they have. 

“If I could teach them one thing,’’ Brisbane school principal Catherine O’Kane, says, “it would be: stop comparing yourself. Don’t do it…You are enough. That’s what you’ve got to know.’’ 

That point was reinforced over and over, by teachers and school counsellors and other experts. Our girls need to understand that each of them will travel her own path. 

It will be littered with challenges and our job - as parents - is to best equip her to meet those. 

But her path will also be sprinkled with gold; opportunities she risks not seeing if she doesn’t run her own race - because she’s too focused on the lane of the girl next to her.

Madonna King is a bestselling parenting author and her latest book Ten-ager is out now. It raises the issues our girls might not be talking about publicly, and guides parents on how experts believe we should deal with it.

Feature Image: Getty