Editor’s Note: Dr. Katie Hurley, author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls,” is a child and adolescent psychotherapist in Los Angeles. She specializes in work with tweens, teens and young adults.
It’s Girl Scout cookie season again, which means young female entrepreneurs are outside your favorite stores and community centers selling you the latest flavors and old favorites.
While this program that helps girls learn and practice important leadership skills remains the largest girl-led entrepreneurial program in the world, cookie season can also include unwelcome messaging about calorie counting, restricted eating and diet culture.
During the course of the selling season, and even just in a single shift, girls are likely to hear negative comments about weight, body image and disordered eating from both customers and passersby. While many comments are passed off as humor, a seemingly benign joke about needing to exercise more to “earn” a Thin Mint isn’t as innocent as it might seem.
“We know that children can internalize body image concerns as young as 3 to 5 years old, so it’s important to keep in mind how we talk about our bodies and the food we eat in front of children very early on,” said Dr. Nicole Cifra, an attending physician in the division of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“We also know that dieting is a major risk factor for developing an eating disorder, so minimizing talk about diets or restricting certain food groups is beneficial,” she added.
Although a single comment isn’t likely to trigger an eating disorder, repeated exposure to diet talk can have an effect on the thought patterns girls develop around eating and body image.
“There’s a cumulative effect of kids getting these messages directly,” said Oona Hanson, parent coach and founder of the Facebook community, Parenting without Diet Culture. “One individual customer is not solely responsible for internalized messages that lead to disordered eating, but all adults play a role in the messaging kids hear around diet culture and positive body image.”
What might feel like a humorous way to deflect a cookie purchase in the moment could do more harm than anticipated. It’s probably not the only negative commentary the young entrepreneurs hear during a shift. Given that over 200 million boxes of cookies are sold each year, that’s a lot of girls fending off a lot of snarky remarks about bathing suit season or earning the confection through extra workouts or starvation.
If you’re inclined to crack a joke because you just don’t want the cookies, consider taking a moment to engage a Girl Scout in conversation about their business model and where the funds land. This gives these young businesswomen a chance to practice public speaking while sharing what they’re learning. Chances are you might even learn that you can make a cookie donation through the “Cookie Share” program. My family likes to buy some for our home and send some via Cookie Share to United States troops.
Charlotte Markey, author of “The Body Image Book for Girls,” notes that it is nearly impossible to address every negative comment heard in the background of cookie sale booths. “Some of this is so commonplace that if we take every single comment seriously, we spend too much energy on it,” Markey said.
However, there are steps parents, educators and Girl Scout troop leaders can take to mitigate some of this negative messaging so that girls don’t internalize it.
“The best thing that troop leaders and parents can do for their kids is to model their own healthy body image,” said Dr. Cheri Levinson, associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Louisville and director of the university’s Eating Anxiety Treatment Lab. “It’s also important to talk about all of the good things that bodies do for us — like letting us hug people, dance or pet our pets.”
Practicing gratitude as it relates to our bodies is a powerful way to reframe thinking away from unrealistic expectations or negative thoughts about our bodies and toward being mindful of the many ways our bodies carry us through our days.
Kids are always listening.
“One of the most important things is not to talk negatively about your body or food in front of kids,” Levinson said. When we talk kindly to ourselves, she noted, they learn to do the same.
Balanced eating includes having treats at times and taking the time to enjoy the foods we consume. When adults label foods or eating choices as “good” or “bad” and “healthy” or “unhealthy,” kids get the message some foods are either off-limits or harmful. This can create feelings of shame around eating, particularly when sweets are restricted to these categories.
“One thing troop leaders can do is talk about the joy around food by sharing their favorite combinations of cookies,” Hanson said. “This tips the scales in the direction of creating a balanced relationship with food.”
It might be tempting to ignore the commentary and simply move on, but if girls are hearing diet culture talk, they need to talk about it with a trusted adult.
“I recommend having an open line of communication about these topics. Talking to children about the media they consume or comments they hear from others related to body image can be helpful in giving them a space to process the information they’re receiving,” Cifra said.
One way to do this is to debrief the girls after the shift ends. A troop leader can say, “We heard a few jokes and comments about diets and not eating cookies. I wonder how you felt when you heard those things?” This opens the door to a discussion about negative body comments and how girls can reframe their thinking.
There might be times when an adult has to step in and gently redirect another adult who is making uncomfortable comments, but girls can also take the opportunity to use their voices to stand up to diet talk.
Assertiveness is an essential leadership skill, and countering unwanted commentary with positive messaging is one way to help girls sharpen their skills. Plan ahead to come up with some talking points to use if they encounter any negative messaging. Phrases like “We love our cookies and they only come around once a year!” or “Gift a box to our troops — we know they love our cookies!” change the tone from negative to hopeful while empowering the girls to speak up for a cause they believe in.
Cookie season does only come around once a year, and the dollars earned from these sales go directly back to the local and regional troops to fund activities for the girls throughout the year. Whether you donate the cookies to someone else or pick up a box of favorites to enjoy yourself, your purchase empowers up-and-coming leaders. So go ahead and grab those Thin Mints while you still can.