On the local morning news this week, I heard a statistic that stopped me cold in my tracks. I don’t even remember what the story was about, but the reporter cited research that, on average, girls’ self-concept peaks at around age 9. They didn’t cite the study, so I can’t comment on its validity. But I’m not surprised to hear this, knowing that more than half of ten year-olds wish they were thinner, 80% of children are afraid of being fat, that by age 17, 70% of girls have been on a diet, and over half of girls would rather be hit by a truck than be fat.
So my first reaction to the statement about girls’ self-concept peaking at age 9 was, “Wow. How very sad.” And in the past, that is where my feelings would have stayed. But now, I have a two year-old daughter. And so this time, I got angry. It angers me to think that she may only have seven more years to feel good about her body. Only seven more years before she starts being more concerned with how she looks than what she can do. Only seven more years before she starts to emphasize her flaws over her intelligence. Only seven more years before how she comes across to others, how she wears her hair, what clothes she has, and everything else that girls and women worry about begin to overshadow her creativity, spontaneity, silliness, and caring spirit. Only seven more years of innocence.
At age two, my daughter has no awareness of the unreasonable standard of beauty she will one day be judged against. What she does know is that she likes to play with Legos, that she loves to jump (and jump and jump!), that she loves to read with her mom and dad, that she can run “SO fast”, that she likes to sing, and that she’s really good at somersaults. She cares not one lick about how her hair looks. Tangled mess or neatly combed – it’s all the same to her, as long as she gets to play! Though she does like to pick out her own clothes, her choices are based on what is comfortable and looks good to her, not what other kids are wearing or what is “cool”.
So what happens to our girls* in the seven years between age 2 and age 9? How do they go from innocent and self-confident to self-conscious and inhibited? Well, think about what surrounds them on a daily basis. Constant messages that women’s looks are the most important thing they have to offer the world. Constant messages that there is one single right way to look. Constant attention on one’s flaws.
Intelligent women – high-level politicians and national news anchors – get more media attention for their outfits and hair than their ideas. Criticism of celebrities who look “flabby” on the red carpet is rampant. Pictures of un-real women are everywhere – literally not real in that they are photoshopped past the point of recognition. There’s an entire reality show about little girls being dressed up like sexy women for toddler beauty pageants. And now there are Legos “for girls” that are – you guessed it, pink and purple – and come in sets that build a house, a cool convertible, a bakery, or a fashion design studio. So how are girls NOT supposed to get the message that their options are limited and their looks are their most important feature?
So, how do we fight back against these non-stop messages? We need to make a conscious decision to not buy into these unreasonable standards. Be bold! Flipping through a magazine in a waiting room and see a photoshopped model in it? Stick a sticky note on it that says, “TOXIC: This image is photoshopped and not possible to attain as a real woman!” Speak out to those around you out when you see something harmful to women on television or the movies.
But perhaps most importantly, let’s pay attention to how we talk about ourselves and our bodies. We women have been carefully trained by society to brush off compliments and to point out our own flaws. How powerful and empowering would it be to hear yourself say, “Thank you. I really like my hair like this, too!” Imagine what that would do for a child to have that self-value modeled by the adults in their life.
Try doing something different today. Fight back. Speak out. Get mad! If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for all the little girls out there who haven’t been taught yet that they are not good enough. Because they are. And so are you.
(* And probably our boys, too. Though the statistic was about girls, we know that boys aren’t totally exempt from these issues either)
Contributed by Rachel Pierce, Ph.D.