In today’s media climate, girls often need their
parents’ help to feel good about themselves.
by Susan Stopper
For years teenagers have felt pressure to look thin and sexy, but today, girls as young as seven talk about dieting and ask for mini-skirts with suggestive slogans. With girls’ clothing stores selling thongs for 10-year olds, skinny child celebrities and ads for dolls in skimpy clothes, the pressure to look thin and sexy is trickling down to our daughters. Are sexy styles for young girls harmless or dangerous?
“This trend can cause young girls to believe that they are not pretty enough or thin enough unless they dress, look, or behave a certain way,” says Susan Kleinman, a dance/movement therapist at The Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment center with locations in Philadelphia and Radnor, PA. “It also pulls children into roles they are not developmentally prepared for and may cause emotional conflict and confusion.”
Dr. Jane Shure, psychotherapist at A Chance to Heal, a Jenkintown, PA eating disorder education and advocacy organization, explains that being looked at as a sexual being can be uncomfortable even for adults. Young girls who are taught to look sexy often become numb to their feelings of what’s comfortable and what’s not because they think they should be viewed as sexy. Shutting down these feelings makes girls more vulnerable to disorders.
According to the American Psychological Association, researchers have found a connection between the sexualization of kids and depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
Whether it’s looking sexy or thin, too much emphasis on how a child looks in general can be dangerous. When children derive their sense of worth from their appearance, problems can develop.
• Make self-critical comments about their bodies.
• Seek a lot of reassurance about how they look.
• Diet, talk about dieting or visit dieting websites.
• Engage in sexual or flirtatious behavior to get attention and compensate for not feeling good.
Foster a Healthy Image
“Looking good is important,” says Dr. D’Arcy Lyness, a child and adolescent psychologist in Wayne, PA and behavioral health editor for KidsHealth.org. “It feels good. But there isn’t only one way to look good. And looking good isn’t the only way of measuring up.”
How can parents help their children understand that they don’t need to look sexy or super thin to look good and that appearance isn’t the most important measure of worth?Here are some suggestions.
• Emphasize qualities other than appearance. Focus on the importance of abilities and personality. Help kids develop interests other thanappearance.
• Give compliments. Bolster your child’s self-esteem with compliments about her beautiful smile, generous heart, athletic or artistic abilities, etc.
• Help children identify positive role models who are admirable for things they’re doing, not for what they look like.
• Set consistent limits, but avoid critical comments. Criticism about body type or taste in clothes can breed insecurity. Explain why you’re saying no to an outfit and help your child find an alternative that she likes and feels good in. Rather than saying, “That shirt looks terrible on you,” say, “I like the color of that shirt, but the neckline is a little too revealing.”
• Model healthy habits and a positive attitude. Kids notice how you talk about and care for your own body. Avoid self-critical comments.
• Teach children how to have a healthy body. Explain that all foods are okay in moderation and exercise together for fun.
• Avoid using food as a reward or withholding food as a punishment.
• Talk about the media. Help your child understand that TV and magazine messages help companies make money and few people look like these images. When you can, watch movies and TV shows and discuss them with your child.
What About Boys?
While not feeling the same pressure as girls, boys can sometimes feel as though they’re not muscular enough or not developing at the same pace as their peers. Boys can benefit from the same body image strategies as girls, says Dr. Lyness.
Be aware of the messages boys are receiving about girls through the media and elsewhere. “Boys are getting the message to objectify girls,” says Dr. Shure.
If a boy makes a sexual comment, talk about it and explain why it is inappropriate. Parents can also emphasize the importance of other qualities in girls and teach a respectful
Susan Stopper is a local freelance writer.