Self-worth shouldn’t be determined by what kids see in the media
Read any fashion magazine or watch any music video, and you’ll know that the media isn’t kind to girls. The expectations for appearance are wildly unrealistic, and many girls quickly decide that they’re not thin, pretty, or sexy enough. Most adults know that seemingly “perfect” movie and rock stars have a team of people to cook their food, march them through workouts, dress them, do their hair and makeup, make sure their lighting is just right, and airbrush or Photoshop any imperfections. But do our daughters know this, too?
Why body image matters for girls
There’s no denying that our media and culture are obsessed with women’s looks. Magazines have weekly features with names like “body watch” that criticize female celebrities for being too heavy or too thin. TV and movie stars showcase unrealistic body types that most girls can’t copy without hurting themselves. Ads tell girls that, with the right beauty products, they can get their hair or makeup just right.
The advent of social media means that girls aren’t just passive consumers of the media’s messages. They’re creating and sharing images of their own. All over the Web, you can find “selfies”: photos girls take of themselves in provocative poses. Whether on YouTube orFacebook, girls now feel more pressure to be “camera-ready” — as if to say that the only way to be valued is to appear sexy.
And all this pressure to live up to such narrow beauty standards has contributed to a growing number of online communities dedicated to promoting unhealthy behavior. It’s not just teens who are affected; young girls are becoming more body conscious, too.
This messaging teaches girls what it means to be normal or beautiful at a time in their lives when they’re looking for role models and guidance on how to present themselves. But when girls compare themselves to their favorite stars, they usually feel that they don’t measure up. The results are lower self-confidence and self-esteem, which can lead girls to become obsessed with changing the way they look.
Talking to girls about their bodies is one of the hardest things parents can do — but the constant bombardment of messages about desirable weight and appearance makes this discussion crucial.
Parents of sons should also pay attention to media messages about appearance. Boys also need to learn about the almost-unattainable ideals of beauty that our media broadcasts to them at every turn so that they don’t judge girls unrealistically.
Tips for parents of all kids
- Watch what you say. When you spend a lot of time talking about dieting or criticizing your own body, your daughter is listening. You are still your daughter’s biggest role model. If you take care of yourself, you’ll help your kids appreciate all that our bodies can do.
- If your kids are struggling with body image, you might share your own insecurities and how you dealt with them. You want your kids to know that you understand. After all, this is just the beginning of a life-long dialogue.
- Keep an eye on your kid’s social networks, texts, and other online comments.Today’s kids are living in a constant feedback loop of criticism. They can post, send, and read comments about their friends and themselves instantly — and many take advantage of anonymity and online distance to insult one another’s weight and appearance. (Learn how one mom dealt with these kinds of comments on Formspring.)
- Keep an eye on their selfies. No parent wants to see sexy photos of their daughter (or her friends). But selfies are a popular activity with some teens. Explain the risks — and if you can’t get them to stop, at least make sure they use strict privacy settings.
Tips for parents of elementary school kids
- Keep girls active. Get them involved in sports and healthy lifestyles. Find ways to do these activities together.
- Don’t stress weight, stress health.
- Make sure girls know they’re more than just a pretty face. Placing less emphasis on how girls look helps them value themselves in broader ways later in life. Compliment your daughter on all of her wonderful talents, like her creativity or thoughtfulness.
Tips for parents of middle school kids
- Offer other role models. Get your two cents in about who your girls idolize or find pretty in the media and why. Without being heavy handed, talk about different people you find beautiful who are all different body types — and say why.
- Help your kid become a media critic. Pay attention to ads, magazine covers, billboards — and talk to your kids about how these messages make you feel, and ask them about their own reactions.
- Expose the myths. Make sure kids know that celebrities have stylists, hairdressers, personal trainers, and more — all working to make them look polished. Point out that pictures in magazines have been altered to make models look flawless — and impossibly thin. Even better, show them just how much work goes into a cover shot by watching the short Evolution film produced by the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.
Tips for parents of high school kids
- Talk about the health consequences of eating disorders. Your kids will likely know someone with anorexia or bulimia. Ask them about their reactions. Point out that these are illnesses, not defects, and that their friends need help. If your child has one of these disorders, it could be a life-threatening illness, and you should consult a medical professional immediately.
- Don’t bug kids about their weight — stress health and fitness instead. Be an active family. Get your child up and moving by taking a walk, doing a sport, or taking a class at the gym together!