My daughter is 7, and she recently asked me why girls need to look good all the time. She sees how much time I spend getting ready to leave the house versus her dad. She sees me fret over my hair, my clothes, my body. She watches movies and TV shows that reflect the same things — girls spending a lot more time and energy on their appearance than boys.
It was a keen observation, and it made me stop and think. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an answer that I could share with her. Should I have told her that our culture initially judges women on their physical appearance? Sure, it’s true, but it’s hardly something I want her to think at 7 years old. I want her to think that people will judge her based on what matters — her accomplishments, intelligence, and character.
Images are powerful, more powerful than most of us realize. During an average day, we’re bombarded by thousands of them, whether we’re looking at the internet or flipping through a magazine, and most of these images are meant to impact us on a subliminal level. So it’s worth considering what the images my kids and I see tell us both consciously and unconsciously.
At 7, my imaginative, wild, bright girl has little regard for primping, and while I’m grateful for that now, it took me a while to get there. I had to face myself and my preoccupation with appearance in the process. My daughter hates brushing her hair and making sure her outfits match. Many mornings she emerges from her room in a getup that would make Pippi Longstocking proud — a combination of various floral patterns, stripes, and plaid, as if they were one big happy multi-patterned family; superhero knee socks pulled way up over leggings with a frilly party dress on top.
“Why can’t I wear this?” she’ll ask forcefully.
But before the words have even crossed her lips, she knows that I will say no. In our ritualistic play, this is when she pouts and for added drama sometimes stomps her feet and throws her arms up in the air.
Because I’ve slowly come around to her way of thinking, the other day I broke from the script and told her to wear whatever she wants. She smiled wider than I’d ever seen her before and proceeded to prance around the kitchen. It was obvious that she felt good about herself at that moment, and I realized that I need to stop pushing her to conform to gender stereotypes and foster more moments exactly like this one.
Girls are under a lot of pressure to look, act, think, and be a certain way (and yes, boys are too). Don’t be too loud or too soft-spoken. Don’t be too provocative, but don’t be a prude. Be humble, but confident. Be smart, but not too smart. Be thin, but not too thin. Be stylish. Be pretty. What girls hear and see is that they should be anything but themselves.
It’s no wonder many girls struggle to maintain a positive body image and in extreme cases, but with increasing frequency, develop eating disorders. I might be sensitive to this topic because I struggled with an eating disorder when I was a teen. That said, when 42% of first through third-grade girls want to be thinner, we as a society have a big problem.
A 2006 article in Science Daily shares research from Brown Medical School, Bradley Hospital, and Butler Hospital. Researchers concluded that “[e]ven in the absence of an eating disorder […] body image concerns can be impairing, preoccupying, and distressing for teens, taking up a great deal of mental energy and detracting from their quality of life.” When I think about how many hours of my life I’ve lost to worrying about my appearance, I’m motivated to make sure my daughter doesn’t have the same experience.
But what’s a parent to do? I recently came across the work of Atlanta-based photographer Kate T. Parker and realized that talking to my daughter about how magazine images are photoshopped isn’t enough. The images themselves need to change, and I need to give my daughter better role models in what she sees in the media and what she sees at home.
A mother to two young girls, Ms. Parker’s project-turned-book Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves aims to redefine what pretty means through images of girls doing what they love. She doesn’t pose girls in pretty dresses or ask them to smile politely at the camera. Unlike the predominant images in advertising, her images aren’t of painfully thin girls trying to be sexy. She captures girls in moments of joy, frustration, fear, thoughtfulness, determination; her images are real and human and beautiful.
Our country’s preoccupation with girls and looks has an impact beyond bestowing girls with distorted body images. A recent study published in Science and written about in The Washington Post finds that girls as young as 6 begin to see themselves as less brilliant than boys. In the same article, the author mentions a study of Google search data showing that searches related to boys are overwhelmingly about intelligence and searches related to girls are overwhelmingly focused on appearance. I would hope today that parents would be just as interested in their daughter’s intelligence as their son’s. But old stereotypes are deeply ingrained and die hard.
I still haven’t answered my daughter’s question, but after a lot of research, I plan to talk to her soon. In our talk, I’m going share Ms. Parker’s book, and as we look at the images, I will talk to her about what she sees in them. I’m also going to show her ads from magazines and help her learn to analyze them.
If I don’t want her to become one of the 42% of first- through third-graders who want to be thinner, she is going to need a healthy dose of media literacy. We might even get involved in a media advocacy group like the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
Yet even as I do these things, I know I will be wondering if it’s enough to keep her strong during the teenage years. I know how hard it can be from experience. We can talk to our girls all we want about combatting negativity in media and advertising, but it’s true that an image is worth a thousand words.