Bonnie, 7, looked at a photo of herself and her older sister and said, “Abby is so pretty, and I’m so fat and ugly.” It floored her mother, who had tried hard to be sensitive when it came to talking about bodies, appearance and weight.

The origin of Bonnie’s worries was found in a comment made in kindergarten by one of the popular girls, who told her in front of others that she was “the ugliest and fattest girl in the class.” Bonnie took it to heart.

Bonnie is not alone when it comes to girls worrying about weight, since a reported 80 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Girls at my camp last summer made a long list of numbers they obsess over: weight, BMI, bra size, dress and jean size, calories, grams of fats and carbs, and now even the number of steps they walk each day. But the number on the scale is still the one that creates the most angst.

It’s imperative that we guide girls to focus on qualities that matter so much more than appearance instead of unrealistic standards imposed by the culture. Our campers got feedback from their peers about how they were beautiful inside and out. They talked about qualities like compassion, bravery, inner strength, out-of-the-box thinking, integrity, kindness, and wisdom. This helped them to see beyond their narrow and limited view of themselves. I also showed them videos about defining themselves beyond their looks.

Finally, I had the girls write a breakup letter to their scales, as though they were ending a long-term, unhealthy relationship. And the coup de grâce in deciding they were not going to be defined by a number was having each girl smash an actual scale with a hammer as she loudly and proudly proclaimed a new mantra about loving her body. It was exhilarating and freeing.

As parents, we can do our part by consciously acknowledging our girls for intrinsic qualities, ones we know will be valuable as they go through life. Here are some concrete steps all parents should take to heart: compliment girls on their stamina, athleticism, strength and other physical attributes rather than on looks. Spend even more time talking about their non-physical attributes, like problem-solving, integrity, intelligence, leadership and resilience. It also helps to get girls involved in sports, where they use their bodies as something other than a showpiece for style and appearance.

Moms, in particular, need to be careful about how they talk about their own bodies and self-image. When Mom says she needs to lose a few pounds or looks fat in those jeans, guess who’s right there absorbing it all? Remember: we are mirrors for our daughters, so we need to reflect back to them what’s really important in life.

Tim Jordan, M.D., is a Behavioral Pediatrician who specializes in counseling girls ages 6 through college. For more information, visit