What to do when your tween or teen girl doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror.
Our girls are up against some fearsome foes. Images of beauty are everywhere, and the brainwashing begins at a very young age. Media, fashion trends, culture, heritage, friends, family and even religious beliefs set and reset our and our daughters’ standards of beauty.
Psychological associations are tied to beauty. Nice characters are represented as “pretty” characters in most Disney movies and picture books. The Princess is most often kind, loved, beautiful, thin, usually fair skinned, has manageable hair, doesn’t have braces, and gets the Prince. The Wicked Witch/Wicked Step-Mother is ugly, feared and hated, has bumpy skin and a large nose, and deserves the punishment she gets.
Evolution has created in us a survival skill that unfortunately also makes us have what is called a “bias for beauty”. Those who have the appearance that people over time in our culture have come to favor are treated differently than others, and our girls can see that happening around them. Attractive children are more popular, are given more positive attention by parents and teachers, and get away with more just by being cute. As a result, dissatisfaction with appearance begins as young as preschool age in some girls.
Parents unintentionally play a part in this. To the daughter who has the culturally recognized form of beauty, we fall into making comments about how “beautiful/gorgeous/sweet/lovely” she looks, when the other daughter who does not have that socially acceptable look hears how “nice your dress looks/how nice your hair looks/are those new shoes?” The heavier girl may hear how beautiful her face is, but will not hear how nice she looks overall. Girls notice this difference. They perceive how they are compared to others and compared to social standards. They hear what you say and what you don’t say, and many times wish you wouldn’t say anything at all.
Here are some numbers that show how widespread and pervasive the issue is:
- A recent study showed that at least 81% of ten year old girls had already dieted at least once.
- 2/3rds of 12 year old girls within a normal weight range considered themselves “fat” and many had been called “fat” by their peers.
- 75% of the girls who were judged as vain because of an obsession about their appearance (looking in the mirror repeatedly, wearing a lot of make-up, putting on tight fitting clothes, and only wearing the latest fashions) were not behaving this way because of vanity or confidence, but rather out of newly overpowering insecurity and fear about social acceptance and being liked by peers and boys.
As girls go through adolescence, they are dragged through the gauntlet of hormonal changes, awkward stages, and severe social critiques. Recently, a study of adolescent girls showed that when they were feeling down, dissatisfaction with their bodies went up. Their own vision and evaluations of themselves increased or diminished by the mood swings prevalent in adolescence. When asked why they suddenly felt less secure of their own appearance, though, they could not see that the shift occurred because of their mood. They were sure they were less attractive than they seemed before, and this caused them to want to cancel plans, suddenly hate all their clothes for not making them look better, and become more agitated with those around them.
These issues, when not dealt with, continue into adulthood. Up to 8 out of 10 women are dissatisfied with their reflection in the mirror. They notice what is wrong, what is different, and what they feel the need to fix. They see only what they think their partners want them to change and what society wants them to change, and they see where they are less “perfect” than the heavily airbrushed and digitally modified models and celebrities in magazine photos.
So, what can we do to help?
It is an uphill battle, especially for parents. We all know that when we try to reassure our daughters of their beauty, we get discounted, “Ya, but you’re supposed to say that. I’m your daughter.” So, certainly be reassuring anyway, and then move the conversation away from subjective views of beauty to character and integrity, the many definitions of strengths, talents, and confidence. These topics move the topic from external to internal, from physical traits to character traits. These topics help a daughter see other strengths she can use to get where she wants to go in the world. They move her from a beauty bias, as mentioned before, to a confidence bias.
Have your daughter research and then tell you about people she admires in the world, because of actions they have taken, skills they have developed, obstacles they have overcome, or things they have created.
Encourage your daughter to look at images of beauty all over the world to see that other cultures define beauty in very difference ways. This helps remind her that there is not one true form of beauty, no matter what the media says.
You can also explore the strange and disturbing world of photo editing and photo shop with your daughter. Look at a celebrity, or model in a photo shoot, and then look at an actual photo of the same person that has not been retouched. Help her expose the myth, and see that she is comparing herself to images of people who don’t actually exist in that form!
Parents and caregivers need to be mindful of shifting our own behavior, as well. We may not realize how much we are a product of this same environment and are inadvertently making things harder:
- Not only can you decide to talk with your daughter about more important things than facial features, hair, clothes and weight, but you can be careful not to be critical with her about other people’s physical traits and changes in their appearance that you might not like.
- Be careful not to be regularly critical of your own appearance in front of your daughter. Show her that a person can look in the mirror and feel alright about themselves.
- Try not to compare her physically to others in either a positive or negative way. Help her know that you see her as a person in her own right, and you don’t focus on how she is more than or less than anyone else when it comes to subjective and modern views of beauty.
- When you introduce your children to others, try not to say, “And this is my beautiful daughter…” Try to move the focus away from appearance. If you feel you need to say something about your daughter and use your bragging rights as parents, mention how she is smart, how she is kind, how she plays the piano beautifully, or how many goals she scored at her last soccer game. It is a powerful way to remind her in that moment that you notice and are proud of everything she is, and everything she can do, and not just the physical traits with which she was born and had no control over.
- Talk about health, rather than being thin. Talk about feeling good and taking good care of herself rather than dieting. Talk about helping her body get strong rather than the measurements of her figure.
You can certainly be supportive of modifications she wants to make – a new haircut, and new style of clothes – but remind her that the one trait that actually draws people to others more often than any other is confidence.
When people seem happy with their lives and are self-assured, they exude a quiet confidence. This trait is very appealing to those around them. They are not overtly confident, or pompous, nor are they nervous and shying away. They are also not trying too hard to be accepted, i.e. are not putting themselves down when someone tries to pay them a compliment in order to have the person push even harder with the compliment, nor are they putting others down based upon what they are wearing, or looking like in order to boost themselves up. They don’t need to wear tiny skirts that they are desperately and repeatedly pulling down to make sure everything is covered, nor wearing 6-inch heels that make them stumble across the room and then have to soak their feet in ice water to bring the swelling down after they get home. When you are quietly confident, you have had the opportunity to find out that you have character traits you can feel proud of, and skills that make you feel very capable in this world. To others, you appear present, strong, grounded and happy, and this inevitably draws others towards you.
Rachel Bernstein has a Masters in Education and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is the School Counselor at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Schools and has a private practice in Encino. She has been working with children, couples and families for 20 years.