"Study after study shows that girls believe how they look is the key to their popularity -- their self-esteem. They think how they look is who they are."
These are the words of Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, in a discussion for Body, Mind and Child. She was joined by Diane Levin, co-author of So Sexy, So Soon, who concurred that, for girls, appearance determines their value. Worse, they both agreed, a girl's appearance is more often -- at younger and younger ages -- being defined by how sexy she is.
Did you know that nearly half of all 3- to 6-year-old girls now worry about being fat? Were you aware that the sexualization of children has led to eating disorders in those as young as 6, and that children rank body image among their highest concerns? What was your highest concern when you were 6-years-old? Mine was having enough time to play!
This kind of stuff should serve as a wake-up call to parents. But because today's young children spend much of their time in preschool and childcare settings, early childhood professionals should also take notice. They, too, can play a part in helping young girls grasp that they are more than how they look. And they can start with how they talk to girls!
Lisa Bloom wrote an excellent piece for HuffPost on this topic, in which she suggests that we adults not make constant reference to matters of appearance. Unfortunately, we all do it. Little girls are just so darn cute that we can't help ourselves. We take one look and squeal, "Don't you look adorable today!" "I love that dress you're wearing!" "Oooh, what a pretty ribbon you've got in your hair!" So why wouldn't girls believe that their appearance matters most?
Diane Levin suggested that, instead, we talk to girls about their interests and abilities. That may seem like one of those "duh" statements, but just wait until you try it. As Peggy Orenstein told me, it's tough to limit comments about girls' appearance -- that it makes adults tense. She admitted that when she first began trying, it felt really awkward -- as though, by not saying something positive, she was tacitly saying something negative about their appearance.
But, awkward as it may be, we need to make the effort. We also need to provide images of females who are known, not for their gyrations on MTV or their provocative poses on magazine covers, but for the contributions they make to society. As an early childhood professional, you can choose books to read in which female characters are strong and capable. You can take the children on field trips to see female doctors, dentists, chefs, and postmasters at work. Invite women who are police officers, artists, or musicians to visit the classroom. These kinds of activities allow the boys, as well as the girls, to perceive females in a whole new way.
Check out Peggy Orenstein's website; you'll find an ever-evolving list of resources, including picture books, movies, and more. Then visit TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), of which Diane Levin is a member and where you can find more information and support. And be sure to listen to the Body, Mind and Child segment, in which Dr. Levin also offers suggestions for expanding little girls' play when they're merely imitating the princesses to which they're overly exposed.
Then head on over to the nearest little girl. Ask for her thoughts on the book you've most recently read, on her favorite sport, or even on the day's weather. Trust me, she'll be happy to tell you!