When Laura M.'s daughter Jackie, age 7, complained that she didn't have a flat stomach, Laura was taken aback. When Jackie came home from school and said she thought her nose was too big, Laura was puzzled: Where was this coming from? But when her little girl began talking about the size of Britney Spears' breasts, Laura was totally floored.
"Someone told her at school that Britney Spears had something put in her breasts to make them bigger," Laura remembers. "I didn't want to put down Britney Spears, because my daughter loves her, but I said that sometimes women get infections from doing that or they can't nurse their babies. She was surprised to hear that."
Girls of all ages continue to be bombarded with a disturbing media message, namely: How you look matters more than who you are. Whether it's diet ads they see on TV or waif stars with major plastic surgery they see in magazines, the take-away for children is that you need to change or improve your appearance. It's a message many parents find difficult. Jackie's dissatisfaction with her nose brought back memories for her mother, who had her own nose fixed as a teenager.
"The attitude in my family growing up was, 'As long as you look fine, you are fine,'" Laura recalls. "My parents were totally focused on appearances. You had to look perfect. I used to watch the Miss America pageants with my father and he'd point out to me the way the contestants looked and the way they walked."
To her credit, Laura has taken a decidedly different tack in dealing with Jackie's early signs of appearance anxiety.
"My first response about her nose was, No, your nose is not that big. Then I checked myself, because I didn't want to tell her not to feel the way she felt. And so I told her all about Barbra Streisand and how she's one of the best singers in the world and she has a big nose and it fits her face."
Like Mother, Like Daughter: A Weighty Issue
Laura's message is critical to her daughter's developing sense of self-esteem. Despite fears of diminishing influence over their children's lives, research shows that parents continue to be essential role models, in both positive and negative ways. Studies have found that women who began dieting at early ages were more likely to have daughters who would engage in binging or have problems with eating. These mothers were also more likely than other women to agree, when asked, that their daughters should lose weight.
"It's my impression that parents are not sending negative messages deliberately. They're doing it unconsciously," says Debra Franko, Ph.D., director of the Harvard Eating Disorders Unit at Harvard Medical School. "A mother might say, 'Oh, these pants used to fit last winter and now they're too tight.' The mother doesn't have a sense that she's saying anything wrong, but that statement, in combination with all the other messages a child is getting, might leave an impression that how you look means a great deal."
"I wouldn't tell a child that appearance doesn't matter, because in our society it does," says Rebecca Manley, director of the Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association. "But it's about looking at what (qualities or attributes) you do have, and focusing on those things."
How You Can Help Your Daughter's Self-Image
Manley and Franko offer these suggestions to parents of young girls:
DO acknowledge, not dismiss, their dissatisfaction with appearance.
"Try to understand it as fully as possible," Franko advises. "Sometimes a body message is just that, but often it's another message about what's going on in their world, like a problem with their friends or at school."
DON'T use "appearance-related activities" to bond with your preteen or teen.
"Often mothers will say, 'Let's go the gym together to get ready for bikini season,' or 'Hey, I'm going on a new diet, want to go on it with me?'" Manley observes. Better to find fun activities that aren't focused on improving a girl's looks.
DO be aware of what you say about your own appearance.
"If parents are always wanting to change their own appearance, that sends a powerful message to kids that this is what you do when you're an adult," explains Manley. "If you look in the mirror constantly, they pick up on that."
DON'T ridicule or put down "bad" role models that girls admire.
"It's better to say that a lot of people really like someone like Britney Spears," Franko says. "But then say, 'A lot of things she does are just not part of our world.'" Such statements like that help kids separate the world of stars or fashion models from their own reality.