My sixth grade daughter started dieting. Advice? — Doting Dad, Deer River
I was born long and thin. This wasn’t a problem until the day I changed schools at age 7. From that time forward, until I turned 15 and had filled out a tad, I was heckled. I was Olive Oyl, Bean Pole and Ribs. I was Skinny, Spidey and Daddy Long Legs. Add to that list the accolades of Goofy, Bugs and Metal Mouth that my prize teeth won me and you might well think that my esteem lay in tatters on the floor.
Fortunately, I was a good student, a reasonable athlete, I had friends and I had spirit. Those attributes kept me standing, even as my confidence about the way I looked staggered and swayed and occasionally buckled beneath me.
Interestingly, those persistent “tell it to my face” name callers were always boys — a few boys from my class who knew me, certain boys from my grade who only knew my name, and older boys who barely knew me at all. It was a rare day that a girl made a comment about my looks. Why? Because girls — whether tall or short, large or little, whether with perfect teeth or imperfect ones — have been on the receiving end of comments about their appearance from the time they were young. And they know better!
Fast-forward 30 years and girls have it tougher than ever. In addition to those big-mouthed remarks served up by small-minded classmates, girls are also subjected to a daily blitz by television, billboards and magazine commercials that teach that looks are hot — and smart mind, healthy body and courageous spirit is not!
Those 77,000 advertisements focused on beauty that a girl sees by the time she is 12 years old (according to Dove research) promote “uber” images of digitally manipulated and airbrushed celebrities and models in megabyte quantities. And those computer-generated pictures teach girls that luscious locks, silky skin, flawless make-up and a picture-perfect body shape (including that must-have thigh gap) are what create confidence, popularity and happiness. And as we know, that message is about as honest as the images themselves!
So what’s the impact of this obsessive focus on the way girls should look? Since “many adolescent girls believe physical appearance is a major part of their self-esteem and their body is a major sense of self” (American Association of University Women), it’s unsurprising that Dove found that 77 percent of the 2,000 10-14 year old girls they polled described themselves as “fat, ugly and depressed” when faced with those images of beautiful models and celebrities.
The National Eating Disorders Association research concurs. They note that today’s 6 year olds are now “beginning to articulate concerns about their weight or shape” and that some “40- 60 percent of elementary school-aged girls (aged 6-12) are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat.” Add to this, the shocking trend among teens for plastic surgery (69 percent resulting from school bullying, according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery) and clearly girls have got the picture. And it’s not pretty at all!
More insidious and even less girl-powerful still is the current media trend to sex up the look of girls. The American Psychological Association states that sexualization occurs when “individuals are regarded as sex objects and evaluated in terms of their physical characteristics and sexiness.”
Where do we see that? Everywhere! From toddlers and tiaras to the lingerie line offered by France’s Jours Après Lunes for young kids, to Victoria Secret’s “PINK” (which, according the company’s CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer, was launched for teen girls aged 15 or 16 who want to look older”) to Vogue’s sex-kitten image of 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau to American Apparel’s Instagram (August 2014) featuring a “Back to School with Buttocks Bared” look for girls, there’s a media boom in the sexual objectification of girls.
Both dangerous (the media looking at children through a perverse sexual lens) and denigrating (what are girls being taught about themselves?), this puts gender equality back light years. No wonder the American Psychological Association research (2007) found that girls’ esteem takes a nosedive at age 9 and why the New York University Child Study Center concluded that the demoralization of confidence comes from girls shifting their focus from accomplishments and abilities to appearance! Quite!
The role of parents
As parents, what can we do to help? We champion our daughters, heart, mind and soul! Embrace a healthy temple!
A healthy body is a temple. Encourage your daughter to focus on exercise and nutrition and build a healthy heart, strong muscles, flexibility and strength, while gaining good hair and skin in the process. This approach to physical upkeep empowers your daughter to potentialize in a way that is positive, not detrimental.
How do you do this? Educate her! Borrow books and magazines about health and nutrition from the library and read them with your daughter. Provide nutritious meals at home. Encourage your girl to exercise (go for walks or bike rides together, join a gym or rent a video and try yoga together.) Praise her for attaining her fitness goals and not for how “cute” she looks in her exercise outfit. Finally, introduce your daughter to female role models (a teacher, trainer, coach, family friend or female sports icon) who will educate your daughter that a healthy body is a truly beautiful one!
Open her heart and mind!
Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched; they must be felt with the heart.” Educate your daughter about these look-ist issues, so that she is aware of the problems and able to filter through the advertising messages and make informed decisions for herself. Then, open your daughter’s mind to what is truly beautiful in people. Talk about the power of persistence, bravery and strength. Share stories of role models like: Sunitha Krishnan, who has founded Prajwala in Hyderabad, India, to fight the sex-trafficking of little girls; or Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s first female judge, founder of the Human Rights Defenders Centre and the first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; or Jane Goodall, primatologist and environmental campaigner who has conducted trailblazing research on chimpanzees.
As you encourage your daughter to think outside the Twist, GL, Seventeen and Teen Vogue box, she’ll begin to realize what is truly beautiful in life — friends, family, hobbies and making a difference — and she’ll develop her own set of values that will be worthy of a front page.
Help her develop a strong spirit and a warrior’s voice! Help your daughter be a spiritual warrior and teach her to speak up in the face of body related put-me-downs. Verbal assaults are painful to deal with. They can shock us often into silence. But provide your daughter with a spiritual toolbox. Teach her how to take a breath (say an empowering prayer) to calm herself in the moment, then teach her how to stand assertively, with shoulders back, feet planted and make eye contact with the bully.
By standing assertively in the face of a threat, your daughter will send a message of confidence and self-respect. If she feels physically safe, encourage your daughter to speak slowly and clearly, “Your comment was offensive to me. I deserve an apology.” Even if the bully laughs and turns away, your daughter has stood strong and that’s empowering. And if your daughter doesn’t receive an apology, or even receives further insults, she should withdraw and report the incident, knowing that dealing with a bully is always the most spirited course of action she can take.
Where do we go next?
In our Instagram, Snapchat and selfie-dominated teen world, it takes effort to engage our daughters and help them see that our media-created obsession with girls’ looks promotes unhealthiness and unhappiness that is nothing but ugly. But by educating your daughter — mind, body and spirit — you will help her blossom into a woman who will break through ceilings and gaps and disparities to create a fairer tomorrow for everyone.
Girls and Self Esteem
Healthy Self Esteem
Programs for Girls
Raising Self Esteem for Girls
Lingerie for Young Girls
Sexualization of Girls
Lecture on Sexualization of Girls
Marketing to Teens