For the past few months, getting my 5-year-old daughter, Emma, dressed in the morning has been a grueling ordeal. She hovers over her open dresser drawers, rapidly pulling shorts and shirts out only to immediately dismiss them.
“I have no good clothes,” she’ll announce. I stood by recently as she inspected herself in the mirror. “No! This doesn’t look pretty,” she wailed, pulling fiercely at her skirt. “I don’t look beautiful!” I took in her angst, and felt close to tears myself.
It dawned on me that Emma, my almost-kindergartner, is obsessed with her appearance. She hates to wear sneakers because she doesn’t think they complement her attire; she can spend 15 minutes adjusting a headband; she asks constantly about getting pierced ears.
Following her outburst, I felt guilty. I’ve been telling Emma she’s beautiful since the day she was born. And with her blue eyes and wavy brown hair, interspersed with gold strands that middle-aged women pay big bucks for — she is. I love to buy Emma clothes; I draw attention to her dolled up in a new dress, sending her to “show daddy how beautiful she looks.” Relatives constantly compliment her appearance.
No wonder she’s already weighed down by the pressure to be pretty.
According to data compiled in 2015 by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides education and promotes safe media and technology for kids, body-image concerns start earlier than most of us might think. More than half of girls ages 6 to 8 think their “ideal body” size is thinner than they currently are. (One-third of boys feel the same way.) Preschoolers have already learned that society judges people by how they look.
Furthermore, a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 34 percent of 5-year-old girls engage in deliberate dietary restraint at least sometimes. Twenty-eight percent of those girls said they want their bodies to look like the women they see in movies or television.
Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women” (HarperCollins 2017), tells me that to put the statistics in context, “Developmental milestones for 5-year-olds include the successful use of a fork and spoon and the ability to count 10 or more objects. . . . These are girls who are just learning how to move their bodies around in the world, yet somehow they are already worried about how their bodies look.”
In her book, Engeln writes about what she calls “beauty sickness,” which is what happens when girls and women get so caught up worrying about their appearance that they are too distracted to be present in other aspects of their lives.
Countless sources will tell our daughters what beauty is. As parents, we’ll never be able to shield our daughters from all those messages. But Engeln maintains that there are steps adults can take to minimize the pressures on kids. And that starts with being aware of how we talk about our own bodies.
“When daughters are very young, parents can start to build them up and inoculate them to have a firmer foundation to stand on when they get out in the world,” says Engeln, who points out that little girls might not understand media references, but they certainly know what they hear their mothers talking about.
“If they hear you complain about not liking your arms or wanting to lose weight,” she says, “you can bet that’s going to influence the way they think about themselves.”
At home, focus on discussions that reflect your values.
“Don’t talk about how people look. Don’t spend time focusing on who looks so pretty because that sends the message that ‘pretty’ is important,” Engeln says. Starting when daughters are babies, “Dress her in things that allow her to play and move rather than outfits that look pretty but may not be very comfortable. Don’t treat your daughters like decorations.”
It’s OK to point out fixed attributes like intelligence and beauty, says Tara Wells, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, but the key is not to focus on them.
“Ask your daughter what she has learned instead of praising her looks and performance,” Wells says. “Marvel at her ability to change and solve problems.”
As girls get older and become more inundated with cultural standards of beauty, help them understand that there are multiple variations of beauty, says Judi Cineas, a psychotherapist in Palm Beach.
“The most effective way to nurture confidence is to nurture talents,” she says. “Encourage your daughter’s mastery in the things she likes. . . . Praise her efforts as well as her successes. She should know that it is OK not to be the best at everything, and more importantly that there are things she is awesome at.”
There’s long been debate about the effect on girls of playing with certain toys — Barbie in particular. But rather than forbidding particular toys, Engeln suggests, ask your daughter why she wants to play with them. Be sure she has access to different kinds of toys, activities, and sports — not just typical girl-centric classes like ballet.
For parents with both sons and daughters, try not to interact with them differently based on their gender. In one case, doing so had a positive effect on Kyrah Altman, now 21, who has two brothers and was raised by a single father in Hudson.
“I didn’t feel my dad treated me differently than my brothers. It wasn’t about being his daughter, it was just about being his kid,” says Altman, now a junior in college at George Washington University who also runs a nonprofit organization called L.E.A.D. (Let’s Empower, Advocate, and Do).
“Growing up with brothers, I played baseball and hockey and wrestled with the boys. I was sort of forced to get out of my comfort zone.” She also loved art projects and cooking. While people commented on her appearance — including dad, who told her she was beautiful from time to time, she said it was never focused on as the most important thing about her. “My dad was always quick to point out that I was [a] good friend, a good big sister,” she says.
Be mindful of what other adults are saying to your daughter, making sure they reinforce the message you want to convey, Cineas says.
“For most people, the easiest compliment is to tell a girl she’s pretty,” she says. “But when you hear that, you can interject with another more personal compliment to remind her she is more than her looks.”
When I ask Engeln if I should stop telling Emma she’s beautiful, she tells me to say it less.
“Don’t tell her when she’s dressed up, with perfect hair. Because that can lead to girls worrying they are only beautiful when they don’t look like their normal selves. Think of the filters on Instagram, how people are always trying to alter their appearance for social media,” she says.
“Tell her when she’s her most happiest and at ease, when she’s entirely herself.”
That I can do, I think as I watch Emma running around the backyard attempting cartwheels, playing with her brother. We are just home from the beach and she’s in her bathing suit. She’s laughing and singing along with a song blaring from my phone, her hair a stringy mess from an afternoon of swimming. She is radiant.