‘Help! I’m scared my little sister has body image issues’

Dear Sarah,

I have three sisters, aged 24, 15, and 7—I’m 19. Recently, my youngest sister told me she hated her “fat legs” and “wished she was pretty.” I asked her why she thought her legs were fat and she said she compared them to her girlfriend’s when they sat down and hers spread out the most. Neither girl is ove weight at all, but her friend has a naturally thinner frame. I told my little sister that she is beautiful and never to think otherwise—of course I’m biased, but I do think she’s incredibly beautiful!

My family is generally active, we eat healthfully, and until recently, my sister had never expressed dissatisfaction with her body or looks. If eating a healthy diet ever comes up in conversation, I make sure to point out that staying fit is important to give you energy—so she can play more and live to be an old lady!

Still, I have my fair share of body image issues and I know my 15 year-old sister does too, I’m worried that maybe we’ve made negative comments about ourselves or that outside sources such as the media have robbed my baby sister of the precious years of childhood that should be totally focused on having fun. Pre-teen and teen years are already hard enough without having low self-esteem at age seven! How can I make my sister believe in herself the same way I love and believe in her?

Thank you,

—Loving Big Sis in Boston

Dear Loving Big Sis,

Some things that you can keep doing are living a healthy lifestyle and also being loving, positive, and supportive. OK, so maybe she did pick up on disparaging comments that you and your 15 year-old sister made about your own looks, but, if so, don’t beat yourself up. It’s so common for women (myself included) to lapse into self-criticism, that its hard to avoid ever doing so. The important thing is that you are now more aware, so you and your middle sister can be conscious about avoiding that trap—not only will it be a good example for your littlest sister, it’s healthier for both of you older girls. We start to believe the stories we tell ourselves, whether they are good or bad, so when your mind goes to an “I feel fat” or “I hate my nose” place, try to shut it down and switch direction.

It can be scary and upsetting to hear a friend or sibling or daughter criticize their appearance or weight because it might mean they are at risk for developing a disease such as an eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder in the future. I reached out to Claire Mysko, the director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association for some professional wisdom on the topic. Claire also oversees the website Proud2BMe which promotes body confidence and encourages young people to be media savvy and take a critical look at the images around them. You should check it out. Claire says you did the right thing by red flagging your sister’s comments and also suggests you to talk to your parents or another trusted adult so they can help keep an eye out and head off any serious issues before they even begin. “We are hearing about younger and younger children expressing body dissatisfaction and it’s certainly something to take seriously.” She adds that you shouldn’t feel guilty and points out that “even kids shows can reinforce the thin ideal.”

This is an opportunity for you to change the conversation and take it in a positive direction—which you have already started to do by addressing her comments and reflecting on your own behavior. Claire says it’s important for young people to think about what they can do in their daily lives and interactions with family and friends to counter harmful cultural messages about what constitutes an ideal appearance or body type. You little sis is super lucky to have you on her side.

Love, Sarah

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