Why is it only girls' body confidence that plummets at the age of 7? And what parents need to know, by a tween expert

Plus 7 ways to break cycles of diet culture

Girl on playground looking at camera
(Image credit: Getty Images)

I was 9 when I started my first diet. I was tall for my age, and as an early developer, I felt fat and ugly. My mum was a member of a local slimming club, so I pored over her trusty photocopy listing the calorie count of most popular foods and devised my own 1000 calories a day, far too little for a girl on the verge of puberty.

It has taken me three decades to repair the damage done to my body confidence and my disordered relationship with eating. For this reason, I have been determined to break the cycle of toxic diet culture with my own daughter. Many parents of tweens expect that their daughters will likely hit a confidence blip once they hit their teen years. They may even be readying themselves for that ‘challenging time’—but many girls start to lose their self-confidence much earlier than 13 years old, and as parents, our action is required several years before then.

This change can baffle many parents: Their toddler daughters, once masters of the universe, are slowly growing into gutsy five-year-olds full of fire, but self-confidence starts to take a hit as young as 7. And this confidence gender gap will stick for life unless we, the adults, do something.

Self-confidence can be tied up in many things, for girls though, how they look has historically been a bigger deal than it is for boys. Research shows, that in the 1970s, the average age of girls starting their first diet was 14 years of age. By the 1990s, this figure was only 8, and today, a quarter of 7-year-olds have dieted. While young girls may be carefree, enjoying play and moving their bodies for nothing more than the joy it brings to them, by the time they have their seventh birthday, things start to change, with 39% of 7-year-olds saying they are unhappy with how they look. This trend only gets worse as girls get older. Studies show that a staggering 80% of 10-year-olds are scared of being fat.

Why is it only girls' body confidence that plummets at the age of 7?

I believe it's down to a toxic diet culture lovingly handed down to generation after generation. Research shows us that while boys are significantly more confident in their bodies (albeit not immune to anxiety over their looks), they are more likely to admire the muscular bodies, strength and power of athletes, whereas girls tend to look to ultra slim Hollywood actresses and pop stars for inspiration.

If you were a child during the 1980s and 90s, you are likely aware of toxic diet culture and the pressure to lose weight and look good. This was the era of ‘Lean Cuisine’ microwave meals, Slimming World classes, Mr Motivator on morning television, the ‘super waif’ models and Bridget Jones complaining that she was grossly overweight at nine and a half stones. Little girls during this time period grew up to believe that thin was beautiful and dieting was the answer to all of their problems, only it turns out that dieting is actually the beginning of a spiral into disordered eating. Published research papers show that children who start a diet early in life are more likely to grow into an obese adult.

"This was the era of ‘Lean Cuisine’ microwave meals, Slimming World classes, and Mr Motivator"

What happens to these girls when they grow up and become mothers themselves? Sadly, the cycle perpetuates. Mothers who struggle with their body image and frequently diet are more likely to raise daughters who have low body confidence and are more likely to commence dieting at a young age themselves. It’s almost as if we teach our daughters how to diet.

We may not do it on purpose, but little eyes are always watching when we eat a different dinner to the rest of the family and little ears are always listening when we complain about our jiggling tummies, or big bottoms. We will also be far more likely to be restrictive about the food we allow in our house. If we want to break the cycle, we have to start with taking a good hard look at our own actions and relationships with our bodies. And start to unpick diet culture.

What diet culture might look and sound like

  • Giving food a moral value by referring to them as 'good' and 'bad' foods
  • Exercising to burn off a specific number of calories
  • Following a restrictive diet
  • Experiencing guilt or shame after eating food
  • Stopping eating before feeling satiated and ignoring signs of hunger
  • Suppressing appetite with other items such as nicotine, chewing gum or coffee
  • Avoiding social settings that require food consumption
  • Believing that they are somehow worthier if they are thin
  • Regularly weighing oneself and changing behaviour based on results
  • Eating supposed 'bad foods' in secret
  • Jealousy towards others for their weight or build

How to break the toxic diet culture

If you're curious about breaking this cycle, you're not alone. Just last week, Hollywood A-lister and mum-of-three, Sarah Jessica Parker was interviewed about raising her two teen daughters on the Ruthie’s Table 4 podcast. Keen to shatter diet culture in her own family, she said “When I had girls, I didn’t want them to have a relationship with food that was antagonistic and to see it as an enemy… We weren’t allowed sugar in the house or chocolate or cookies, so of course, the minute we moved out, we all bought a load of cakes and cookies and I didn’t want that for them.”

Here are few ways to help you break the toxic diet culture, for your children;

  1. Check your own beliefs
  2. Never comment on her body (positive or negative)
  3. Don’t encourage her to diet
  4. Skip the school weigh-ins
  5. Move for fun
  6. Celebrate her talents and personality
  7. Embrace body diversity

1. Check your own beliefs

As with everything parenting, the answer to most issues is changing our own behaviour in order to change that of our children. Taking some time to really sit with and consider your own body-related beliefs, diet choices and the impact of your own childhood is key. This can sometime be easier said than done, if you're not sure where to start perhaps listen to some podcasts such as Laura Thomas 'Don't Salt My Game' or Jameela Jamil's I Weigh.

Your daughter learns almost everything she needs to know about body confidence from you. Remember this before you say anything negative about your body in front of her.

2. Never comment on her body (positive or negative)

From birth, baby girls are judged by their appearance. Their clothes are adorned with comments such as “beautiful,” “cutie pie” and “pretty princess.” Strangers will often comment in public saying how pretty there are and relatives tend to zero in on how lovely they look in their new dress. Boys on the other hand tend to get comments on their skills, personalities, and abilities, moving towards the latter is key. If ever you catch yourself thinking “she’s put on a bit of weight.” Remember, the best thing you can say about it to your daughter is nothing.

I'm not sure if you remember but a quote went viral a few years ago on social media which read: "The first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think; what you think next defines who you are.”

3. Don’t encourage her to diet

Fat is not a bad word, we all have fat. And, it is common for girls to lay down fat stores during puberty and their weight will often fluctuate. If you feel that your daughter is looking a little overweight, don’t encourage her to diet.

You run the risk of starting a lifetime of disordered eating and increased weight gain. While you can look at making family meals a little healthier, the key here is balance. Don’t restrict foods, or make them forbidden, instead take the lure away from ‘treat food’ by having it around your house and normalising it.

4. Skip the school weigh-ins

As adults we know the trauma of having to reveal our weight in front of others. You can request that your daughter is not weighed at school, so that she doesn’t have to go through the same anxiety. Molly J Forbes is passionate about parents knowing their rights and opting out of the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP)

5. Move for fun

When children are young they are full of energy and move for no reason other than it feels good. As they enter their tween years, movement becomes a chore. ‘Exercise’ is seen as something to do in order to be healthy, lose weight, tone up and look good, or a specific class at school. Unsurprisingly this takes the fun out of movement and so they move much less. Think about ways to introduce fun movement into your family – kitchen discos, bike rides, dog walks and swimming sessions are all great bonding opportunities as well as providing much-needed movement.

6. Celebrate her talents and personality

Move the emphasis from your daughter’s looks to her talents, skills, achievements, and personality. If she feels good about herself because she’s a good artist, a kind friend, a talented musician, a fast runner, funny, strong, or good at maths, she’s more likely to have confidence and good self-esteem.

7. Embrace body diversity

Make sure your home embraces body diversity. If you have paintings, or other images, do they portray different body shapes and sizes? Or just stereotypically desirable bodies? Invest in some age-appropriate books that talk about body confidence and self-esteem and watch TV programmes, films and music videos with main characters who are not stereotypically ‘attractive.’

The good news is that society is waking up to the toxicity of diet culture and the harm that is does to young girls in particular. If you can relate to anything in this article and feel that you’ve been affected in your own childhood, now is the perfect opportunity to make changes in your family, not only for your daughter, but for your future granddaughter. You can also help yourself to feel more body confident in the process too. Breaking cycles isn’t easy, but it is possible, you just have to be more Sarah-Jessica Parker than Bridget Jones.

Where to go for more help

The Gentle Eating Book’ by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, (Amazon, £8.99)

Body Happy Kids by Molly Forbes (Amazon, £14.29)

A Mighty Girl


For more advice on life with tweens and teens you can also take a read of our guide on how to talk to kids about coming out or browse the best gratitude journals, positivity planners and activity books for kids. Elsewhere, you could get stuck in with talking all about body positivity.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Tween and teen expert and author

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four young adults. She has a background in Psychology and clinical research and has also worked as an antenatal teacher and doula. Sarah has written fifteen childcare books, covering everything from newborns to teenagers, with a special emphasis on ‘gentle parenting’. Sarah regularly contributes to National TV and radio, including Good Morning Britain and BBC Radio 4 and 5, she has also written for national publications including The Guardian, The Express, The Daily Mail, The IPaper and The HuffPost. Sarah lives with her family, two rescue dogs, cats and chickens in North Essex. Sarah's newest book How to raise a teen is due to hit shelves July 4th 2024.