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When Girls Are Ashamed of Their Bodies

Afraid of the Beach

During my recent Cape Cod vacation, I rarely saw any less than lithe teenage girls on the beach. For five days I saw teenage girls of different shapes and sizes at the movies, malls, and mini-golf -- but only the lean and the shapely showed up in bathing suits at the beach. We've taught our girls to be ashamed of their less-than-perfect bodies. We've made them afraid of the beach.

Women agonize over revealing their swim-suited flesh. They are not comfortable with their adult female bodies. In preparation for summer, they advise their daughters to lose weight, wax their bikini lines, and select bathing suits that hide their "figure flaws." Beach ball-stomached men with spindly legs offer their sons no such summer warnings. The beach is not the enemy of boys and men.

Ill at ease

The only females on the beach at ease with their bodies all seemed to be under nine years of age. Even preadolescent girls consciously sucked in their slightly rounded stomachs, embarrassed by even the slightest appearance of any body fat. Serape-draped women anxiously shared their weight-loss plans as they read magazines promising "a slimmer summer body" and "how to be sexy after 40."

Men joked with each other about their beer bellies and sometimes attempted to retract them as a comely bathing beauty passed by. Their beach talk focused on the Red Sox' pennant chances. They seemed relaxed and happy.

Death, fear, and loathing

Several years ago, a woman's magazine surveyed thousands of women regarding body image. One of the survey's questions was whether they would choose death five years before they were destined to die if they could live the remainder of their lives as thin women. An overwhelming majority responded yes.

Women pass on desperate, shame-based feelings about their bodies to their daughters. This legacy of endless self-loathing, aided and abetted by omnipresent media images of unattainable womanly beauty, has resulted in our daughters' hating their bodies, falling prey to chronic eating disorders and far too often starving and bingeing themselves to death.

Like mother, like daughter

In order for daughters to be comfortable with their bodies, mothers can not be at war with theirs. Mothers must refrain from constantly, bitterly complaining about their weight and shape and obsessing about fat grams. Food must not be the enemy. Girls need to be taught to celebrate their bodies' individual strengths and vitality, regardless of their dress size. The numbers on a scale or the breadth of their hips must not determine their self-esteem.

More swim-suited adolescent girls of all sizes will begin to brighten the beach when their mothers begin to accept and respect their own bodies, freeing themselves and their daughters from the fear of fat. All our daughters deserve a day at the beach.

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