Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Little Girl In A Big Body

February 2, 2004

Let me describe an 11-year-old girl. To say she is large for her age is an understatement. She is as tall as a fully grown woman. She looks solid and big enough to play junior high or high school football. She is not fat. She is just built differently from most young women.

During the school year, her heart gets broken about every day. She is teased unmercifully by her classmates. How vicious kids can be! The bullies are having a field day.

Others join in or passively watch the cruelty without daring to challenge the bullies. Despite her size, she doesn't fight back. One good fight would probably shut up a lot of mouths. That is not her style or disposition. She may look tough but she's not. She is a little girl at heart, easily hurt and she shows it.

Fighting cultural stereotypes. What is the problem? Her body doesn't fit the image of what a female body is supposed to look like. It never will. Whose does?

A lot of young teenage girls feel bad about their bodies because they don't confirm to the Madison Avenue stereotype of beauty. A huge percentage feel they are overweight when their actual weight is normal.

These teens try to confirm to an ultra-slender body image that is unrealistic and a painful challenge to their self-esteem. They get started on a lifelong obsession with dieting that, if pursued with starvation methods, actually creates a weight problem through up and down cycles of weight loss and weight gain.

Self-acceptance. I have met many women who are comfortable with their appearance and live life joyously without getting caught up in the search for the holy grail of irrational thinness. I have met many women who have a similar appearance and are miserably fighting a weight problem year after year after year and feeling bad about themselves the whole time.

I am not talking about being fat or carrying weight that compromises health. There is an ideal weight, which can be different from the norm, for each woman with which she is pleased with her appearance and yet does not pose a health risk to herself.

Trying to go against the culture and accepting oneself despite being different from the ideal image is a daunting task for anyone, especially an 11-year-old.

Acceptance by parents. What if this 11-year-old were your daughter? What would you say to her?

Her parents are giving her the warmth and acceptance she needs to cope with the loneliness or rejection she feels. Feeling loved and appreciated at home for who she is forms the basis for her own self-acceptance. She is learning to accept their help and not keep her hurts and pain to herself.

Dealing with bullies. What about striking back? Her own values and those of her family rule out retaliation. Other parents might consider encouraging their child to stand his or her ground and fight back, win or lose, as a way of stopping the verbal abuse. The bullies then would move on to weaker prey.

One strategy is to completely and thoroughly ignore the taunts so the bullies get no reaction and no pleasure from their nastiness. This takes a lot of self-confidence and control. She might role play responses to different situations so she has a ready answer or quip for those who offend her.

Privately, she can be helped to understand that children who take on the bully role have self-esteem problems of their own and are trying to build themselves up at another's expense.

Developing social skills and self-esteem. She might use her unique size to her advantage. Already she is a terrific softball player whose size and skills are positively Babe Ruthian in her league.

That is one place she commands respect. She also could develop her athletic skills in track and field events or as a skilled front-court player in basketball. With a little bit of work and coaching, she could be a sports star.

She might need some help with her social skills so she can be a good friend and attract people to her because of her warm and accepting personality.

She doesn't need to add to her problem by being hostile, by being a nerd or otherwise drawing attention to herself socially with unaware or inappropriate behavior. Victims sometimes adapt too easily to a victim role.

School responsibility. She could complain to her teachers and principal about her mistreatment. If not handled correctly, the net result could be to invite more abuse. Many schools have an awareness of the problems bullies create and have developed programs and policies to counteract abuse in their schools.

What other parents can do. Parents of elementary-age children need to teach their children to be concerned and look out for the underdog. Without an appreciative or passive audience, the bullies come across looking like bullies instead of being "cool."

If children are challenged by their own peers to lay off, they will. Children need to be encouraged to stand up for what is right, even if there are personal risks.

If parents find out their own children are guilty of taunting, name-calling or physical assault, they need to teach a few human relations lessons of their own.

This girl is special. Keeping her from being scarred by cruelty is everyone’s responsibility.