Teen Girls and Self Esteem

Girl laying on picnic table

My teenaged daughter has a figure I’d die for. Well, not really die for, but you know what I mean. When she wears shorts in the summer, strangers comment on the length of her legs which account for most of her height. Her skin is porcelain like, the perfect backdrop for her thick dark hair and eyes. And yet, like many girls her age, she sometimes does not like what she sees when she looks in the mirror. She wants to buy foundation to cover up the dark circles under her eyes, wants to buy the latest product, “in just four easy payments” to straighten her hair, wants to remove the bump from her nose because her profile is “disgusting.” When did the self deprecation begin? We’ve always prided ourselves on trying to make sure that we taught beauty from the inside out, to embrace all parts of ourselves – even the imperfections. The ‘101 ways to help your daughter love her body’ glares at me from amongst my stack of books on my bedside table. When I ask “where did we go wrong?” I realize that it is not just my husband and me that have affected how our daughter sees herself. Try as I might to break the hypnotic allure of shows such as The Swan, The Starlet and America’s Next Top Model, she is still drawn to watching once ordinary women being transformed into super models or swans. Fortunately, she is aware that not all reality shows are realistic. For example, she know that most patients who have undergone cosmetic surgery, are not encouraged to be engaging in intense exercise only days after surgery as the wanna be swans are. She also knows that those women who enter the swan program with short hair cannot possibly grow long locks in the span of time suggested by the program. Still, despite all her knowledge of what is real and what is fiction, she has undoubtedly been affected by the constant repetition of the need for breast augmentation, liposuction, collagen in lips, teeth whitening and removal of bumps from noses. So, although we discourage her watching of these types of programs, I have always been from the school of thought that what is forbidden, is far more fantastic. Instead, I try to watch the shows with her and to point out the show’s flaws. However, I realize that in their hypnotic state, that kids, especially teenage girls, so vulnerable, are taken in by the messages that these types of programs offer – that unless one removes all the imperfections, one is not worthy of being a swan.

I was most impressed by the advertising campaign recently generated by Dove. The TV commercial ad the print ads direct people to their website www.campaignforrealbeauty.ca which addresses Dove’s desire to help girls and women, in particular, to feel good about themselves, regardless of how they are packaged. “For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. You’ve told us it’s time to change all that. We agree. Because we believe that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages.” The reader is then welcomed to take part in commenting on what defines real beauty. In an effort to reach out to young girls to help them in defining their “own” beautiful, Dove is sponsoring an innovative new program in collaboration with Girl Scouts in the United States. The program, “uniquely me” focuses on building the self esteem of girls with a variety of tools designed to assist girls in evaluating the role of the media in determining how they should look and behave, along with many other tools to help with deal with life more confidently.

In Toronto, Ann McKee, President and Managing Director of 5elementsforgirls took a year off of her career in advertising and marketing to research the issue of self esteem in girls. She found that her earlier background in psychology and education came in handy upon deciding not to return to her former career, but to create groups for teen girls. Mckee says that she creates a safe environment for the girls to talk about a lot of issues they don’t otherwise have much opportunity to talk about. The 5 elements (physical, emotional, social, intellectual and inspirational) workshops ” promote self esteem through interactive activities and discussions. Mckee brings in professionals, experts in their own fields, to talk to the girls over a series of sessions. One such session, for example, focuses on the role of the media and its influence. An expert, who once worked in the advertising business, decided to leave the field after her daughter told her that she need not clean the floor. Mr. Clean would do it for her. Now, the same ex advertising professional, talks to kids about how the media may manipulate and portray products in misleading ways. She also helps teens, for example, see how photographs of models can be reconstructed to present models as perfect when they are in reality not. Other topics that are discussed include bullying and peer pressure. “We really talk about making the right choices in terms of who your friends are and if someone is judging you by what you are wearing, is that really the kind of friend you want in your life?”

Although the groups talk about serious stuff, Mckee says that the girls have lots of fun too. Some workshops include dance and improvisation. The workshops presently cater to girls aged 9-15, but plans for the Spring include groups for younger girls and workshops for parents. A Summer camp is also planned. All of the activities, says McKee, are designed to equip girls with the skills to help them deal with the lives they’re living now. And excel in the lives they will grow into.

Bombarded by the images all around them, we need to keep reminding our children that they are fine just the way they are. One chapter in the book 101 ways to help your daughter love her body is entitled “strengthen her against the power of advertising.” The authors write that “if your daughter is thirteen or older, she may enjoy learning that advertisers create commercials that appeal to consumers on a subconscious level. Explain that these companies hire psychologists who have spent years studying the human mind. They understand what makes us feel superior or inferior or fearful or envious and then use this information to try to convince us that we can feel a certain way if we buy their products… shampoo commercials don’t just simply promise clean hair. They also suggest that once we use a particular shampoo, we’ll become the life of the party.” The authors suggest that the next time your daughter sees a commercial that reminds her how her body SHOULD look, she should remind herself that she is fine exactly the way she is.

However, keep in mind that if YOU are influenced by the power of print ads and TV commercials, if you believe that a certain product will make you happier and that with more botox and less wrinkles, you will be more attractive, if your children see you putting your face and figure down as you look in the mirror, so too will they. There is nothing wrong with trying to look and feel your personal best, but there is also nothing wrong with embracing yourself, imperfections and all. And most importantly, modeling to your children that you love yourself, from the inside out. So, although I may think nostalgically back to those days when I had a figure like my daughters and encourage her to appreciate what she has, I am careful to show her appreciation for the qualities I possess – both inside and out.

5Elements4Girls.com. 416-423-8456.

No Body’s Perfect: stories by teens about body image, self acceptance and search for identity by Kimberly Kirberger 2003

101 ways to help your daughter love her body by Brenda Lane Richardson and Elane Rehr 2001