Body Image for Girls

Starshine wrote a post a little while ago about the hyper-sexualized advertising she sees at the local mall, and brought up her concerns about raising her sons to be respectful of women and not objectify them, when they are surrounded by these images. She brings up a good point, and it’s important to raise our boys to understand that this is just advertising, and that the majority of women and girls do not go around in their underwear, with ‘come get me’ looks permanently on their faces, bent into unnatural positions. It’s a fantasy, and not even one that’s very interesting or original.

As the mother of a daughter, my mind travels to what these ads teach our girls. There is SO much focus on how a girl looks, as if that’s the only important thing a girl can do. Look good. And as if the only way a girl can look good is to wear revealing clothes and be available to guys all the time. It’s important to teach our children, boys and girls, that they have a lot to offer the world, a lot more than their looks and charms. For some reason my mind goes to a pretty innocent movie, “Back to the Future”, where Marty is telling Doc Brown that he wants to get back to 1985 because his girlfriend is there. Doc’s first words? “Is she pretty?” And she is, and she isn’t much more, since the story isn’t about her or their relationship, so all the actress has to work with is being pretty. But what about the plain girls in the world? Are they not deserving of love and attention, of respect and acclaim? What if he had had an amazingly caring and smart girlfriend, or a talented and funny girlfriend, but one who wasn’t society’s idea of ‘pretty’. What then?  Shouldn’t he still be interested in getting back to her, and to his life in general?

And what of the constant pressure to have a ‘perfect body’?  What does that do to a girl’s self esteem?  How much energy and time are lost by girls obsessing about how their thighs look?  I remember two separate articles on Yahoo that covered this issue.

Running in Skorts

One was a girls’ track team in Washington DC, where the coach noticed that the team members seemed to be spending a lot of effort obsessing about how they look.  Since high school is the age when women’s bodies start changing, and some girls are more likely to get cellulite than others (even runners), I’m sure they were worried about their butts and thighs, and did they look OK.  His solution was to have a runners skort designed that would allow a full range of motion for the girls, and yet still cover them up enough that they felt more comfortable and could focus on their running. The result?  A marked improvement in their running times.  They’re kicking butt.


The second story, from last fall, was about cheerleaders in Connecticut, who were embarrassed because they couldn’t raise their arms without their midriffs showing while wearing their uniforms.  Perhaps some of the girls were fine with letting it all hang out, but others were not, and didn’t want to feel self conscious when standing up to do their cheers.  There’s a perception out there that high school girls are hyper sexualized and want to wear sexy clothes, tight sweaters and short skirts, and certainly, that is how some girls explore this age and their sexuality.  But not all girls feel this way, and putting them in sexy outfits as cheerleaders makes things more difficult for them.  The solution was to buy them body suits to wear under their uniforms.   I hope they have new uniforms this year, because the last thing you want to add to your uniform on a hot fall afternoon is a black body suit.  Maybe they don’t have hot weather in Connecticut at the beginning of the football season, but I remember last year when Maya was cheering, there were some games that were up in the mid to high 90s.

The answer, I suspect, is to treat children like children.  I know that a teenager is not the same as a child, and yet, a 17 year old senior is not the same as a 14 year old freshman in so many ways.  But if we can just understand that kids mature and grow up at different rates, and that not all of us want our butts or tummies hanging out while we’re trying to perform a sport like cheer or running races or whatever, then maybe we can stop pushing our daughters and sons into becoming adults far before they’re ready.  And we need to understand the pressure that this idea of a perfect body is doing to our children.  It is almost unattainable, and the struggle is heart wrenching.   And hell, even kids who are born with that ‘perfect body’  have their problems in the world as well.  No one has a perfect life.  So this pressure, every time you turn around, to have a diet plan, count your steps and calories, watch the fat content in your milk, and try to figure out how many minutes of cardio you have to do to to counteract the sandwich you had for lunch.  It’s exhausting, a waste of time, and horrific.  I’m not saying that all of the ads at the mall have to be prudish, or that girls can’t wear a short skirt if they want to.  But I wish that there were more ads at the mall and in magazines that didn’t show under aged women waiting breathlessly for the opportunity to have sex, and that uniforms didn’t make girls feel uncomfortable about the shape of their legs or their stomachs.

4 thoughts on “Body Image for Girls

  1. Interestingly I was discussing this very topic with others; so it’s been on my mind. What I observed was that many of the women I’d consider either homely, fat or just plain unattractive have actually drawn the most men to themselves as in if they end up widowed or divorced, they soon have someone else where sometimes prettier women are sitting home alone and wondering why. My theory on it was that beauty doesn’t draw others to us. It’s personality, vitality, a giving personality, energy, and those are the things that aging won’t lose and that a girl can be encouraged to develop without fear the values would be shallow. Not to say beauty isn’t a nice plus, nor that it’s bad to tell a pretty girl that she is pretty, but it’s a long long ways from the main thing in terms of drawing people to us, of finding love and acceptance, which most of us do want to do.

  2. It’s interesting to compare this century with the last, especially mid-century (after WW2) with the “return to normalcy” mantra after the war, which reduced women’s culturally validated roles to being Mom/housewife or jobs such as nurse, secretary, or stewardess. Each of which got sexualized in its own way in Hollywood, advertising, and mass media. Yet those mass media images were more subtle, and somehow less obtrusive than the raunchy imagery allowed today.

    Kids were allowed to mature at their own rate, even if the sexualized images (think Laureen Bacall giving Bogart double entendre whistling lessons, Jane Russell selling Playtex bras, and even the demur Jackie Kennedy portrayed as charming the French and redecorating the White House) were part of a culture more limiting as to women’s roles.

    We are much more bombarded with far slicker advertising now. In some ways, more insidious. Yet the apparel examples you cite, track and cheerleader uniforms, are a huge advance over new garment designs such as those torpedo bras they hawked back in a time when girls were overtly told that their value lie in landing a man.

  3. We’re probably (if little elf continues on the same path) going to have a lot of intense discussions of ‘appropriateness’. She’s very, very aware (at nearly 4) of her identity as a girl (and a ‘big girl’ at that) and this reflects in her attraction to ultra-feminine dresses, make-up, Barbie (aargh!), princesses etc etc etc…She can only have acquired it from advertising and (I suppose) peers). I’m already dreading future “you’re not going out in that!” arguments.

    Also, feminist responses (for want of a better expression seem to be delivering steadily more confused messages with the Slutwalk phenomenon being the latest odd expression. I can understand (and endorse) the principle but what message is it actually sending?

  4. Exhausting is exactly right, and I do not envy anyone whose job it is to parent daughters. How the heck do you know what message to send anymore? Is it okay to say, “Honey, you look beautiful” without worrying about sending the message that “Looks Are Important”? Do you ever say, “Not too much junk food” without worrying about sending the message, “You’re getting fat” when it isn’t really what you meant? Is it possible to find a pretty prom dress that isn’t something you gasp at when she comes out of the fitting room because she looks like a 25-year old? Honestly, it has to take all the fun out of it sometimes.

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