Grow up! Be sexy! Get thin! Thong underwear. Push up bikini tops for 7 year olds. Botox for teens.
The beauty industry screams at our children from every direction, in every medium, 24/7. Sometimes the messages are glaring and overt – billboards, commercials, and magazine articles telling girls to “get bikini ready” or “erase flaws to snag the guy she wants.” Other times, messages are more subtle – sent through the tiny-waisted dolls they play with or the “pinkafied” toys advertized to her that tell her that girls need to be pretty in order to be acceptable. Overt or covert, the messages about beauty are there.
Thought you were the only one parenting your child? The new Big Brother is a Pervasive Parent ready to sell your children a bill of goods in size small with a side of shame. And yes, there is a profound effect. Studies reveal that the intense pressure to grow up too soon, look sexy, and appear perfect is one of the greatest influences on girls’ well being. Girls repeatedly being told to wear clothes that make them look older, entertain sexual advances from boys, diet or restrict, and even consider plastic surgery to “improve looks” are identified as pressures that are particularly damaging.
If you’re anything like me, you’re not going to take back seat mothering from loud-mouthed advertisers trying to line their pockets at the expense of our children. So how can we be the more powerful voice in a world where negative media and advertising comes in surround-sound?
#1: Teach media literacy – Children hate to be duped…especially by adults. Look through the eyes of your child and see what they see—then dispel it. That TV show they love? Point out that when lead characters all look “perfect” and comic or “evil” characters appear plain, “ugly,” dumb, or goofy. Leaf through the magazines she loves and talk about the photos the editor selected and the stories they feature; what words come to mind when she seems them? Discuss photoshopping, digital enhancement, lighting, and camera angles. Analyze commercials and how they make children want to buy the product touted as “the best,” “the only,” and “must-have” in order to be “pretty” enough or to “attract the guy she wants”. You can even take out the toy catalog from the big toy chains and determine the messages they are sending to our girls as oppose to what they are telling boys through color, photos, font, and the products themselves.
#2: Provide alternative toys and images – The big corporations have the power and the money to keep their products in your children’s faces. However, there are outstanding grass roots companies that provide alternative products that take the focus off beauty and instead, celebrate a less-hurried childhood. Their messages tell girls to be bold, assertive, adventurous, confident, proud and intellectually curious. Whether it’s clothing, toys, dolls, books, or other media, the mission of these companies are parent-friendly and child-centered.
#3: Provide real role models – You want to provide a wider view of what beauty looks like? Expose your children to the people in your life who are beautiful inside and out—not because they fit some kind of narrow criteria set forth by Hollywood or Madison Avenue, but because they have the character, commitment, and charisma that make them unforgettable.
#4: Discuss what beauty really means – Don’t allow the beauty or toy industries to equate your daughter’s definition of beauty with “sexy,” “very thin,” or “perfect.” Instead, generate your own definitions together. Talk about the people in your lives and what you believe makes them truly beautiful. For example; “I think Aunt Janice is beautiful because she is honest, kind, and has a laugh that makes me smile even when I feel sad.” Or “Your grandmother was a beautiful woman—she was graceful and so well put together. Even in her 80s and at only 4’11” when she walked into a room, she owned it.” If you don’t help to define beauty with your daughter, someone else will.
#5: Stick to your values – Even if the neighbor has the latest pouty faced doll or her best friend watches TV meant for girls several years older, that doesn’t mean you have to allow it into your house. You can’t say “no” to everything but when you feel a product or message crosses a line, put your foot down, turn it off, or turn it down. Explain why you don’t like it and what she can see or do instead. It may not be the most popular thing you ever do—but then again, you are her parent, not her best friend.
#6: Watch what you do and say – You may think media and big corporations have all the power, but trusted sources like parents, teachers, and best friends are really who make the biggest difference. If you are complaining about your weight, dieting, gobbing on the make up, wearing revealing clothing to the grocery store, or expressing repeated dismay about your thighs, wrinkles, or tummy, you are sending a loud message.
#7: Ask what’s important to her and what she wants to be known for – This can be a powerful practice for both you and your children. When they think of the values they honor the most and what they admire in their friends and loved ones, what comes to mind? Hopefully, they point out meaningful assets such as their humor, kindness, confidence, brain-power, and warmth over superficial descriptors like hair color and body size. Then ask them what they hope their friends appreciate in them. By voicing coveted traits that go beyond the surface and discussing them with you and others they trust, your children discover that the beauty industry misses the mark.
While the women in our daughters’ lives must be vigilant and involved in providing a different message than that of the beauty industry, the men in our daughters’ lives are just as important in debunking the myths. Fathers and father-figures must actively voice that seeing is not always believing and that a girl’s value should not be based on looks.
Parents must converse with their sons about these issues as well if we are to create a generation of boys who are not raised in the shadow of media’s skewed, sexualized, and superficial view of women and girls. Reducing girls to their appearance—an unnatural, surgically enhanced, photoshopped, version of themselves does not only compromise our girls. It compromises everyone.
Check out Dr. Robyn’s latest Today Show clips dealing with this topic: Abercrombie’s Push Up Bikini Bras for 7-Year-Olds and The Truth About Barbie Galia Slayens Life-Size Barbie!