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HomeParentingBody Image: What Society Tells Girls They Should Look Like

Body Image: What Society Tells Girls They Should Look Like


Article by Justin Coulson.
See his Happy families blog here or follow Justin’s twitter.

I’m a father of daughters… five precious girls.

Being a parenting researcher and writer gives me a lot of confidence in the way I raise my girls. But there is one thing that causes me more worry than anything else. It’s the way society tells girls how they should ‘look’.
There has been some recent noise made in the media recently about a book titled Cinderella Ate My Daughter. The author, Peggy Orenstein, argues that the ‘Disney-fication’ of what little girls are supposed to be (i.e. princesses) is leading to social norms that are unhealthy.

Orenstein doesn’t just blame Disney. She argues that the media, in a general sense, turns women’s bodies into objects to satisfy men, and that the media portrays imperfect women unkindly. This in turn is influencing our expectations of what women should be and look like, and is driving women, mums, and daughters to dissatisfaction with themselves.

The media is powerful. There is no doubt that it can be influential. And the influence is intentional – and biased towards an idealised beauty that is impossible to achieve.

A fascinating interview with Hollywood actor, mover and shaker, Geena Davis sheds more light on the issue. From the interview:
We raised some money, and we ended up doing the largest research study ever done on G-rated movies and television shows made for kids 11 and under. And the results were stunning. What we found was that in G-rated movies, for every one female character, there were three male characters. If it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female.

Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.

And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can’t exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?

The messages the media is sending to women – even young girls – are powerful, pervasive, and barely even noticed. And they are all the wrong messages!

A recent study of 320 women aged between 18 and 65 years (average age= 24.49 years) from 20 UK universities found that in order to achieve their ideal body weight and shape:

  • 16% would trade 1 year of their life
  • 10% would trade 2-5 years of their life
  • 2% would trade 6-10 years of their life
  • 1% would trade 21 years or more of their life

To me, such a survey is not particularly valid. The hypothetical nature of the question, combined with the absolute lack of reality associated with it makes it inaccurate at best, and foolish at worst. It does, however, point to one important fact regardless of the nonsense question that it is:

A substantial number of women experience genuine body dissatisfaction.

The crunch though, is that 79% of the women surveyed reported that they would like to lose weight, despite the fact that the majority of the women sampled (78.37%) were actually within the underweight or ‘normal’ weight ranges.

A few other findings from the study that may be of interest:

  • 46% of the women surveyed have been ridiculed or bullied because of their appearance.
  • 39% of the women surveyed reported that if money wasn’t a concern they would have cosmetic surgery to alter their appearance.

Of the 39% who said they would have cosmetic surgery, 76% desired multiple surgical procedures. 5% of the women surveyed have already had cosmetic surgery to alter their appearance.

  • 93% of the women surveyed reported that they had had negative thoughts about their appearance during the past week. 31% had negative thoughts several times a day.

We live in a crazy, superficial world where all that seems to matter to a woman is what she looks like. It’s as if her appearance is her contribution to society and humanity. And if she doesn’t measure up, she feels inadequate, gets bullied, and will go to extreme lengths to try to achieve the IMPOSSIBLE!

We need to teach our girls that NOBODY looks like the girls in the magazines!
How do we do this, sensitively, as parents?

First, consider your child’s development. For girls in particular, it is normal for them to gain weight at certain times of their lives. Sometimes this can happen rapidly, such as at the onset of puberty. While your child may not look like the media’s popular portrayals, remember that your child is not receiving hours of time in the ‘makeup’ room each day, and airbrushing only works in photos – not real life.

Explain this kind of thing to your child. Let them know that they are normal, and that the people in the media are anything but normal.

Second, be positive about your child’s changing body. Discuss the positives related to how they are growing up. Puberty is an exciting time, and this can be shared in meaningful ways between parent and child. Don’t talk negatively as it will increase self-consciousness. If there are reasons to be concerned, subtly change your family eating and exercise habits rather than telling your child negative things about her appearance.

Third, NEVER EVER let your children hear you complain about your own body. You own your body and it’s up to you to be comfortable in it. If you’re not, keep it to yourself and work to improve your health. If your child hears you complaining about how you look and feel she will learn that this is how women behave. Similarly, if your child sees you going for a walk every night after dinner (or swimming early each morning) then your example will make a difference. Your example of how you feel about yourself may well be the biggest influence on your child’s sense of satisfaction with herself.

Fourth, teach your children that health, fitness, and wellbeing matter in terms of body satisfaction. And invite them to consider all of the ways that they can make a contribution to their family, classroom, and community… ways that have nothing to do with how they look. Help them to know that the media’s obsession with appearance doesn’t have to carry across into a personal obsession with personal appearance.

Fifth, education matters. Show you children how magazines and media change women with advertisements like this… (and no I’m not endorsing the brand or their work – it’s simply a superb illustration)

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