Body image – when did young girls start caring about how they look?

As a mother to two daughters, I’m extremely conscious of the way women and young girls are portrayed in the media and how this influences how they feel about their own bodies. There has been a lot in the press lately about the use of airbrushing and younger and younger girls wanting to wear make-up, but what can we do about it? How can we make our daughters feel good about themselves without closing them off from the real world?

Wednesday is my day for volunteering at Belle’s school. I sit on a coach with 50 small children and we all get taken to the nearest swimming pool. My job is to look after the girls in the changing rooms, supervise the switchover between the year threes and the year fours, and make sure everyone goes home with the right pants on. It is an intense couple of hours.

It is fascinating to see how the girls act in the changing rooms, and how comfortable they are with their bodies, which inevitably come in all shapes and sizes. They range in age from seven to nine and although there are a few who make a show of putting their clothes on under a towel, most are happy to prance about, squealing, flicking each other with their wet costumes. (I don’t have much authority, in case you couldn’t guess).

Last week one of the year three ran up to me, completely naked apart from having her pants on her head.

“Miss!” she said, managing to turn it into a three syllable word, “I don’t think I’ve got my pants on properly!” She ran off giggling happily to herself.

What I find most noticeable though is the difference between the seven-year olds and the nine-year olds. Although they are all equally happy in the changing rooms, you can clearly see and hear a difference in outlook. You can almost see them maturing, taken on the thoughts and ideas they believe are what growing up is about.

On the coach home last week I overheard a conversation between two year four girls, who were talking about marriage. It went something like this:

“So, where are you going to get married?”

“I think it might be Spain.”

“Ooh yeah, on a beach. Or how about Las Vegas?”

“Yeah, and whoever we marry has to have a lot of money. We NEED the best things.”

Is this how far we’ve come? I thought the days were gone when women had to marry for money. I wanted to turn around to the girls behind me and ask “What about love?”

Perhaps I am just naive.

Belle is seven now (I can’t even think about Bee being 14 already), and going swimming with her on these Wednesday afternoons is like a glimpse into the future, a vision of how she is likely to change and grow over the next two years. Part of me is petrified, the other part reassured that all the girls I swim with are so confident and self-assured. They know what they want and I get the impression they will stop at nothing to get it. I’m just not sure that what they really want or need is to marry a millionaire in Vegas.

So what do you think? Are children growing up too quickly or am I just being a typical parent, not wanting to let go of my babies? How can we protect our children and make sure they feel good about themselves, when it feels the media is conspiring against us? Answers on a postcard please.



  1. Ellie Hughes
    19 May, 2010 / 11:06 am

    My 6-year-old daughter has been working out ways to stop the boys seeing her knickers when the class change for PE (because for some reason they all have to change together in the classroom). I told her to put her shorts on under her dress first – she likes this idea and sees it as something of a fun challenge, but how long for? I don’t want her to be sexually objectifying herself any time soon, if ever, and would NEVER let her wear a bikini, crop top, slogan tee etc.

    • 19 May, 2010 / 2:26 pm

      I’m with you Ellie on the crop top/slogan thing. Fortunately my 14 year old’s stlye is EMO (I have no idea how you right that down – capitals?? Who knows…), which means she is normally well covered in layers of black and I never have to worry about her exposing too much flesh!

  2. Sally Guyer
    19 May, 2010 / 11:07 am

    I really hate to tell you this but now I’m safely 50 and feeling better about myself than ever before (and looking better than I have for 5 or 6 years) I think it’s safe to share this secret.

    When I was about 7 (1967), I used to stand in front of the mirror, crying because I thought I was fat. I wasn’t; I was a normal, healthy child. I just wasn’t one of the scrawny ones – and remember this was the 60s – Twiggy, mini skirts, thin, thin, thin etc. Furthermore, when my mum came into school to pick me up one day, wearing short shorts, I was so embarrassed and hid myself behind the coats in the cloakroom, wishing that she would wear a twin set and tweed skirt like everyone else! Looking at photos of her at that time, I can see she looked pretty good.

    My own daughter, now rising 14, has always been very clothes conscious – and does have a pretty good sense of style. She’s such an icon for her peer group that they ask her to go with them when they go out shopping for new clothes! However, at 2 and 3, if she didn’t like what I dressed her in, she would strip off and appear at the breakfast table in her nappy/undies, glaring like thunder. Try explaining that to my son’s year 2 teacher, who would glare equally disapprovingly when we arrived late at school as a result of negotiating what my toddler was going to wear.

    So what is it all about? I think most of us do care quite a lot how we look – weight, clothes. Our children model themselves on us, more than we could ever imagine or they’ll ever admit. Difficult to break the cycle. I encourage my daughter to be individual, original, innovate and bought one of the first copies of Vogue’s ‘More Dash than Cash’ back in the 80s. I’ve now passed it on to my daughter who loves it. I’ve always told her she’s gorgeous because if you’re going to have a self-fulfilling prophecy might as well make it an over the top positive one. She doesn’t have a dad and her older brother is a typical, non PC, merciless older brother so lots of teasing and put downs but she copes pretty well with those.

    My sister, a teacher studying to be an art therapist, told me anorexia is most prevalent amongst those in their 60s! So we don’t grow out of it. Maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that many fashion designers are gay (which I’m fine with) designing clothes for slim females who most resemble the young male form? Maybe it’s time to encourage more girls to become top designers and focus on healthy, tasteful and individual? Fingers crossed eh?

    • 19 May, 2010 / 2:28 pm

      Gosh, loads of food for thought there! It’s interesting the point you make about older women struggling with things like eating disorders – you tend to think you get more and more body confident as you get older, but maybe that’s not always the case. What can we do eh? Just our best, as usual I suppose…

  3. 19 May, 2010 / 5:15 pm

    I always say this, and it is perhaps getting annoying, but I don’t have kids, am middle aged, and nothing you write about is at all relevant to my life. Yet I love your blog! I love your writing style. I also love the writing and well thought out comments your readers leave.

    It is rare that I am of mind to add anything to the discussion, but alas today I thought I would.

    I can’t say why beauty is so important, but it is. I am an extremely average looking guy, who is well into his balding years. I remember many years ago when Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett in 1993. I can clearly remember all the conversations of my female friends. For the most part, they were angry, really angry, that she would marry someone so ugly. The rage and disgust was a little disheartening for a somewhat unappealing guy to hear.

    The thought that it was considered a ‘crime’ in the eyes of women, that she should date below her own level of looks, was a clear indication to me that looks matter.

    I don’t condemn the women who felt this way, I just accept that it is the way of the world, and I moved on. I hope that the daughters you describe, the girls, who will become the women of tomorrow, realize that in the grand scheme of things, though looks matter, they don’t have to matter to you.

    I am comfortable with myself. I am happy. I am middle aged, balding, and I still enjoy Julia Robert’s movies.

    Thanks again for the great writing.

    • 20 May, 2010 / 8:41 am

      No Brian, it will never get annoying!

      It would be all too easy to fall into just being a ‘mummyblog’ and only get read by other parents – I love that my blog attracts a really diverse group of readers.

      It’s a good point that you make too, and I’m sure it works both ways – I think we expect people to vaguely match up in the looks department, and it stands out when people don’t. It’s not right, but it’s the reality. Personally, I’ve drawn comments in the past from friends for dating pretty unattractive men, but when someone makes me laugh and challenges me intellectually (wish doesn’t happen often to be honest – I’m pretty hard to please), I automatically find the whole package attractive.

  4. 19 May, 2010 / 5:16 pm

    Really interesting point about the fashion designers, Sally, think you may be onto something. I also think you’re right about girls following their mums. Someone i know has a terrible body image. She struggles with weight, appearance and confidence and her daughter, who is slim and 13 now has big confidence issues as well. I can’t help thinking that it’s because her mum behaves that way.

    Personally, we were broke when i was little and so i quickly got over trying to follow everyone else and went my own way – not in a cool way, but certainly in a don’t care, thick-skinned kind of way. It’s served me well, to the point where i think i take more risks in life and am more independent of worrying about what everyone else thinks.

    Anyway, ‘love yourself and do your own thing’ is a learning process, but i think a strong female role model certainly helps. My little one is 20 months, so i’ve got sometime to work it all out!

    • 20 May, 2010 / 8:43 am

      I totally agree about the mum’s influence, and family circumstances growing up make a big difference too – we were pretty broke too and didn’t have money for the cool clothes or shoes. I cringe looking at photos of me as a child is some of the most bizarre outfits! I may not have had a huge group of popular friends, but at least I was quite content in who I was, playing ‘estate agents’ at home with my sister :-)

  5. 19 May, 2010 / 5:48 pm

    This is something of interest to me, as I don’t believe – as much as I enjoy them – things like music videos filled with women scantily clad do women, or men, for that matter, much good.

    I was warmed to read about the non-airbrushed photos of Mz Spears being released lately, and there does seem to be a bit of buzz around this area, but I don’t see it lasting, as fashion, and its related areas are forever fickle.

    • 20 May, 2010 / 8:45 am

      You’re right Ian, it doesn’t do men any good either. I think we often mistakenly think of it as just a problem for women and girls, but there must be men that feel the pressure too – it’s not like our TVs and magazines aren’t just as full of toned hunks, who apparently have to have their tops off and their chests waxed and oiled just to have a shave…

  6. 19 May, 2010 / 8:09 pm

    I’m a professional bra fitter, and am constantly horrified with what companies are trying to sell to young girls and young women in terms of their underwear. Not only do young pert breasts not need bras, they certainly don’t need anything with underwires in whilst they are continuing to grow. It can be counter-productive wearing ill fitting bras, causing damage to young breast tissue.

    We’re all sold an image by the media, and young women and children are taken in by this and want to conform – we’ve all done it, so why are our children any different?

    I see women everyday wearing ill fitting bras. And why? We’re not educated about how to fit a bra at a young age. Maybe we should ask our educaters to ensure that body image is looked at in terms of media and peer influence as well as health and well being (if you’re wearing an uncomfy bra, what does that do for your body image?)

    I have 2 boys, so can’t comment further about your situation from experience.

    • 20 May, 2010 / 8:48 am

      It feels like young girls are in such a rush to get bras – I’ve no idea why – I wish I didn’t have to wear the damn things! I notice it in the swimming classes – there are quite a few of the eight and nine year olds with what they call ‘bras’ – basically little bra tops – but it’s pushing the idea of growing up as quickly as possible isn’t it?

  7. 19 May, 2010 / 8:37 pm

    At 4, Miss L is at that stage where she is curious about body shapes. Coupled with brutal honesty, confidence and a booming voice, this can be scary in public if she sees someone who is particular large heading her way. I love that she’s still innocent and thinks nothing of hopping into bed with her half naked parents on a weekend. I do think I need to keep more of an eye on MTV now though; I caught her flicking her hair and slapping her butt to Lady Gaga recently and it gave me the shivers.

    • 20 May, 2010 / 8:50 am

      lol – that would be enough to give anyone the shivers.

      We are all quite happily naked around each other in our house, even my teenager. To be honest, I’m probably the least comfortable one, but I’m happy to go along with it until one of them pulls back. I certainly don’t want to be the one to say ‘ok, let’s cover ourselves up shall we?’, as if our bodies are something to be ashamed of.

  8. 21 May, 2010 / 10:51 am

    verry good

  9. 23 May, 2010 / 7:15 am

    Having a young daughter this worries me as well. Last week madame who is 2.5 was playing with a friend the same age, when the other little girl leaned over and said to my daughter ‘I like your jeans’. I don’t know why but this really freaked me out. How on earth do children at such a young age know what’s fashionable and what is not???

    • 24 May, 2010 / 8:42 am

      I wouldn’t worry too much – she’s probably just heard you complimenting other people and is copying. It’s actually a really lovely skill to learn I think – being able to pay a compliment to someone?

  10. 12 December, 2012 / 2:58 pm

    My daughters are at the ages you probably fear, and I do have my concerns. I have four girls but they are completely different. Really too much to say in this comment, but though I’ve had body issues myself, Confessions of a Skinny Mom, I try to model good behavior, and point out bad behavior, especially in the media. Reality shows are awful at this — the women are drag queen level made up. Used to be false eyelashes were for stage and 5 inch stilettos were for the pole, club, or the bedroom, now young girls are shown that’s it’s a necessary part of everyday wear for girls, as soon as they get their period. Helps that my girls play sports so I remind them that you can’t win if you’re worried about your hair, makeup and can’t run in heels. I think the message needs to be that there are all different types of girls and women. One of my responses is, “Yeah, there are women like that. I’m so glad I don’t have to do all that to leave the house.” When my slim daughters with athletic builds say something about the number on the scale, I point out that those models who say they are 5’10 and 105 pounds are either lying or they are ill. One of my daughters is told all the time she should model because she’s 5’10” — and is slim (looks like a volleyball player) but her weight is more than what models in fashion magazines report because she’s healthy! I think they get the message (though I’m constantly amazed at the stuff they tell me their friends say –i.e. that when she has a baby she won’t feed it because she doesn’t want her baby to be fat!! — yes a kid (not mine) actually said this!!!)

    I found that watching The Devil Wears Prada actually helped. We love that movie and discuss how Emily doesn’t eat but she’s so thin already and every thinks Andie is fat but she isn’t. “Hire the smart, fat, girl.”

    Whoa this ended up being long after all.

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