My five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter has an eye for fashion. She has her favourite outfits and she is fond of accessories. She likes to wear beads like Granny and my earrings are a source of great interest.
It’s all very cute and sweet, but I wonder if I should compliment her less frequently on her attire. I don’t want her to grow up thinking that her value as a girl depends on her appearance.
She will get plenty of that messaging from society and the media, as any edition of Discovery Girls magazine illustrates. Discovery Girls is for girls between eight and 13 years of age, with a median age of 10.8 years. According to its website, it has a readership of 900,000 in the United States.
The magazine once came under fire for a spread that taught little girls how to select a swimsuit.
The advice on curves will make your head swim. “If you’re curvy on top, coverage is key!” Side ties and cutouts will “draw the eye down.” For the straight “up and down” body, “add curves with asymmetrical straps.” Too curvy? Minimize your curves. Not curvy enough? Create the illusion of curves.
For the chubby, “rounder in the middle” girl who fancies bikinis, “high-waisted bottoms work best,” preferably in big, block patterns for a slimming look.
At the time, magazine publisher Catherine Lee issued a lengthy apology in response to the backlash at the time. “It is hard for me to believe that an article so contrary to our magazine’s mission could have been published on our pages. I have been at a loss for words for days. The article was supposed to be about finding cute, fun swimsuits that make girls feel confident, but instead it focused on girls’ body image and had a negative impact.”
One would expect the publisher to have a little more oversight on the kind of material that makes it to press.
How indeed could the article, “so contrary” to the magazine’s purpose, make the cut? Could it be that the swimsuit spread reflects the magazine editors’ own attitudes about body image and beauty? Could the editors have been unaware of the extent to which years of exposure to media messaging about the female body have shaped those attitudes?
From an early age, we are exposed to societal attitudes about beauty that influence our idea of self and others. Today’s children are bombarded with thousands of messages that idealize and sexualize the female body. They absorb these messages but lack the experience and maturity to understand them. When Discovery Girls insinuated to its impressionable young readers that their body is flawed and in need of concealing, it reinforced adult perceptions about the relationship between beauty, sexuality and self-worth. It stoked the flames of self-doubt.
We need to build our girls up, not tear them down with unrealistic ideals of beauty. The same holds for our boys, who are increasingly exposed to images of an ideal, ripped male body.
Common Sense Media reviewed research on body image in children. The results are disturbing. “Children as young as five express dissatisfaction with their bodies.” “More than half of girls and one-third of boys aged six to eight feel their ideal body is thinner than their current size.” “Body image concerns start earlier than you think; even preschoolers learn that society judges people by how they look.”
Children’s preoccupation with their bodies is accelerating. Twenty-plus years ago when my own children were adolescents, I read Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia. Pipher, a clinical psychologist, described how society’s attitudes about women made it difficult for adolescent girls to retain their sense of self. Today, five year olds of both sexes have similar issues. We are robbing our children of their childhood.
The experts have lots of common-sense advice to help parents (and grandparents) minimize the potential harms of these unrealistic messages. Limit media consumption. Project a healthy attitude towards your own body; “ban fat talk.” Encourage healthy activities like play, sports, dance or music.
To these I would add: recognize your child’s gifts and celebrate them. Help her discover that she is wonderfully made, that her beauty radiates from within and that there is no one like her in the entire world. This will give her more confidence than a swimsuit that hides curves, creates curves or minimizes a pudgy middle.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.