Q: At what age should I teach my daughters about the ways media idealize thinness and display a narrow view of beauty? I want to reach my girls before their opinions are shaped by media influences, but I don’t want to alarm them about something that doesn’t seem to bother them yet. They’re in 4th and 5th grades now, and I feel like, even if I choose my words carefully, talking to them about a healthy body image could inadvertently inspire worries about dieting and other unhealthy eating habits. Is the Evolution video on your website appropriate for this age group? How and when should I be having this talk?
—Body image-conscious mom in Glencoe, IL
A: Dear Body image-conscious mom,
You have good reason to be concerned about how media images of beauty affect your daughters and all of us. Studies show, for example, that the increase in dieting by girls as young as 6 or 7 may be related to influences from media to which they have been exposed. Even though you aren’t facing this issue with your daughters, helping them build a healthy body image in the face of media messages can be a constant challenge.
To help tweens navigate their media environment, you can help them focus their attention on things you do want them to notice and value:
- Focus on who women are and what they do, not on how they look. Research shows that, by directing even critical attention to media images of beauty and weight with your girls, you could accidentally send the message that looks are most important. Instead, focus on who a person or character is and what she does—like whether she’s a good team player or a loyal friend or a talented artist. Introduce them to media that aims to do the same (like New Moon Girls for tweens and Teen Voices for teens).
- Take cues from your daughters. When they do start commenting on an actor’s appearance, redirect their focus to who the characters are. If they comment on how pretty someone is, you can say something like, “But what do you like about her?” And when they start to focus more on images of women in media, or if they indicate that they want to look more like a certain actor or model, take a look at some resources that can help guide how you use the Evolution video with your girls.
- Be conscious of how you talk about yourself. Again, focus on who you are and what you do, rather than on how you look. Then, when and if you do comment on your own appearance, keep it positive: say things like, “I love how I feel after a hike” rather than “I wish I could lose a few pounds.” Wherever you focus your attention is where they will learn to focus theirs.
Your daughters are already exposed to and affected by unrealistic and unhealthy images in media. You can help increase and emphasize the positive messages they see, limit the negative ones, and be a voice that gives them a healthier, more positive way of seeing themselves and the world.