Our appearance-obsessed culture is now affecting girls as young as seven who say they feel embarrassed and ashamed of how they look and are becoming more and more interested in make-up and looking “sexy.”
Writing for the Daily Mail, Tanith Carey, British journalist and author of Where Has My Little Girl Gone, is reporting on alarming new trends among young girls who are turning from dolls to makeup as a result of the culture’s obsession with appearance.
Carey’s article cites a recent Girlguiding UK survey which found a sharp drop in girls’ body confidence, with children as young as seven riddled with doubts about their looks.
“About two-fifths — 38 per cent — of seven to ten-year-olds think they are not pretty enough. Astonishingly, almost a quarter say they feel they need to be perfect, while 15 per cent report that they feel embarrassed or ashamed by the way they look,” Carey reports.
“When I wrote the book Where’s My Little Girl Gone? on this subject in 2011, the concerns were about 11 and 12-year-olds, which was bad enough. Yet here we are, five years on, with concern sharply focused on girls five years younger than that.”
So if most girls in this age group don’t have their own smartphones and are not yet comparing themselves on social media, why are they suffering such a crisis of confidence? Where are they getting the idea that a beautiful body is all that matters?
According to Common Sense Media, a media monitoring group, children between the ages of two and 11 see an average of 25,600 ads per year on TV and the internet with a huge proportion of these ads containing images of female perfection. Children are also exposed to highly sexualized images of females on YouTube and other internet sources which they can access any time they’re on a computer.
“The result is that they are exposed to more images of female perfection in a week than previous generations of children saw in a year,” Carey says.
Her article includes first-hand accounts of the very real damage this is doing to our girls. One case involves seven year-old Amelia whose mother, Lauren, is always very careful not to criticize her own body or looks in front of her daughter. She has also never mentioned the word “diet” around Amelia. And yet her daughter is now worrying that she’s not pretty or slim enough to attract boys or be accepted by other girls.
“When she wanted a pamper party for her birthday, where the guests are treated to beauty and massage treatments — these parties are popular with many girls her age — I managed to divert her into a pottery-painting party instead,’ says Lauren.
At playdates, where girls used to skip rope and play with dolls, now they want to do makeovers on each other and dress up like their favorite pop stars.
“Little girls her age don’t want to climb trees, play in the mud or run around any more. They think playing with a skipping rope is babyish. They only want to do so-called ‘big girl’ activities,” Lauren said, and all of these activities revolve around fashion and make-up.
Wondering where her daughter is getting these ideas, Lauren has begun to notice the many places where these messages are reaching the ears of little girls.
“It’s on the advertising billboards when we go out; it’s what they hear talked about in the playground, where they call each other pretty or ugly. It’s in the lyrics of their favorite pop songs, when they hear Little Mix say they want a potion to make boys fall in love with them. They think they are supposed to look like the skinny models they see everywhere. But that’s simply impossible because they have seven-year-old bodies.”
According to a study in the Journal Of Children And Media, 87 per cent of girls aged between ten and 17 who appear on the Nickelodeon and Disney children’s channels can be classed as underweight, Carey reports. Another study found that heavier characters on children’s TV programs are more likely to be the butt of jokes and to be seen as unpopular and unattractive.
“Seven is about the age when children start to evaluate themselves. It’s also the age when they start to work out what their ideals are,” says Psychologist Deanne Jade, founder of the National Center for Eating Disorders. “For some this will lead to ‘beauty and the beast thinking’ in which they will see images of the tiniest waists, like the latest Disney princess, and think their own perfectly proportioned tummies are not acceptable by comparison.’
This was the case with a 34 year-old mother named Lucy whose seven year-old daughter was taught to believe that beauty is something you find on the inside. But one morning her daughter, Darcy, told her mother that she was worried that her stomach stuck out too much.
“It turned out she had overheard some of the older girls in her school gymnastics class the day before. They could only have been about eight or nine, yet they were talking admiringly about another girl’s flat stomach. In her seven-year-old mind, Darcy immediately thought: ‘Hold on, my tummy doesn’t look like that’.”
It broke her heart to think her little girl felt this way about herself.
“Darcy looks the way a seven-year-old is supposed to look. There is not an inch of fat on her, but she is already turning the criticism on herself. If she is on a playdate, she will come down with make-up all over her face. I have said to her ‘Do you think you look nice with make-up?’ and she says she does. Her playdates used to be fancy dress. Now they have started to be about finding ‘cute’ outfits.”
The problem is becoming so endemic that some schools are beginning to hire specialists to talk with their students about body image.
“We now hear of nursery-age children talking about their ‘fat legs’ and saying they can’t wear leggings,” said Chris Calland, co-author of the book Body Image in the Primary School. “’They don’t need to be on phones or social networks to get these ideas.”
Parents also need to be careful, especially those who have been sucked in by the values of our appearance-obsessed culture. They need to “tone down their own anxiety about food, fueled by panic about rising childhood obesity and the new ‘clean eating’ craze,” Calland added.
“Parents are only trying to do their best in wanting their children to be healthy, but sometimes they are not getting it quite right. They will come up at the end of a session and say ‘I found chocolate wrappers in my child’s school bag’ as if it’s the end of the world. Once you raise that anxiety about food and create guilt around it, then it becomes a treadmill.”
It’s also never too soon to ask a seven year-old if they believe the people they see on the television screen look like the people they know. “It’s already possible to have age-appropriate conversations about self-esteem, which is really what body confidence is all about,” Calland said.
This is something that must be addressed early these days, because a child’s self-esteem at the age of eight has been found to be a predictor of whether they will have eating disorders by the time they reach their teens.
Former primary school head Sue Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood, told Carey that parents must fight back and not allow children to slip into having adult preoccupations.
“Everything is available to children at a very young age, but we have lost our sense of what is age-appropriate,” Palmer said. “Adult-like behavior and fashion are becoming normalized at ever earlier ages. The whole point of childhood is to give youngsters the time to work out who they are and grow into themselves. They should be out playing, learning about themselves and what they can do, which is what biology intended.”
Even though they may look more grown-up on the surface, in terms of emotional development, they are actually behind children their age from 20 years ago.
“The knock-on effect can be seen in the burgeoning mental health problems we are seeing among children and teenagers,” Palmer said.
This is certainly born out in studies of the first generation of girls who “grew up too fast” and who are now becoming young adults. In a recent report published by the UK’s NHS Digital, it was found that young women aged 16 to 24 are the highest risk group for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
The bottom line is that adult women need to do more to protect our girls from the toxic effects of this culture. We need to teach them that what they see on television and in advertisements is not reality and help them to discover that their true self-worth is about a whole lot more than just what they see in the mirror.
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