Opinion

Girls and body image: Good luck!

Writer/Editor Haley Overland on how we can use princess culture and the media's representation of women to our benefit.

By Haley Overland

Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

This month's debate at Today's Parent is about girls and princesses: Should they play with princesses? What does this do to their sense of self-worth? Is it detrimental to fostering a healthy body image?

After reading both sides of the debate — husband and wife duo Ian and Sonia Mendes both had strong points — I found myself throwing my hands up and saying GOOD LUCK, particularly when Sonia talked about the problems playing with princesses presents for girls' body image.

Here's the thing — and I have an eight-year-old daughter, so I think I can start speaking to this — it's impossible to shield our girls from the constant, in-your-face representations of women in the media. Unless you keep your daughters at home, under the couch, there's no way to shelter them from the barrage of messages the media sends out every millisecond about how they're supposed to be in the world: 1) beautiful; 2) skinny; 3) rescued; 4) wearing very little clothing; 5) you get my drift.

It's basically you against the world. The media, Hollywood, marketers, all that, are relentless, I tell you. I know because I've tried to stop it!

To help combat the media — TV commercials and programs, billboards at every corner, books, princesses, Barbie dolls, music, movies, store windows, newspaper stands, etc. — many parents and experts suggest keeping kids away from all that stuff: Don't buy magazines; Don't let them watch TV; Don't let them play with princesses or Barbie dolls; etc., etc.

I tried to be one of those parents. I prided myself on the fact that my kids played with unisex toys: "She loves to play soccer and doesn't give Barbie dolls the time of day," I remember boasting. But there comes a point when, one day, she figures out how to work Netflix while you're cooking dinner, and what's her new favourite show? (Please don't judge me) BRATZ. Ohhh, I was warned about those dolls.

I'm here to tell you you just can't stop it. If she hadn't discovered Bratz at home, she would have discovered it at a friends' house, or she'd be drawn to something similar. And you know what? It's OK. Surrender — which isn't to say don't do anything about it, but rather, own it.

Here's the thing. My daughter's Bratz-show watching is definitely limited — that much is in my control — but, for whatever inborn reason, many of our girls are drawn to this stuff (like we were in our own day to Jem and the HologramsSweet Valley High, Cinderella, Sabrina the Teen-Aged Witch and her crop tops, and of course, Barbie). They're inevitably drawn to magazine covers they see in the store with the bikini-clad movie stars flexing delicate-but-shapely abs, good-ole Archie comics, air-brushed fashion billboards.

But here's the kicker: They're asking questions. And if they're not asking questions, you can start the dialogue.

Sure, their questions at this young age might be, "Isn't she pretty, Mama?" or "Will I wear lipstick like that one day?" But these questions are opportunities. By striving to shield our girls from the media and things they're drawn to — like princesses — we're potentially missing out on key opportunities to teach them one of the most important life skills in our sexed-up media-driven culture, especially when it comes to body image: CRITICAL THINKING.

So when my daughter opens up a magazine I have lying around (I'm in the magazine business, so this is inevitable!), we talk about what we see, the air brushing, the messaging. We talk about what the ads she sees are trying to sell. We talk about how strong a princess is in a movie she loves, or about the choices the princess makes, or doesn't make, and how they affect the story.

Similarly, when my son sees a big juicy burger on TV, we look at it closely — does it really look that good? When he sees an awesome new toy commercial, "Hey, we have that toy," I might say. "Did you think it was really that awesome?"

So instead of repressing, shielding, hiding from the media's omnipresent messages, I say OWN IT. Let your kids be drawn to what they will (responsibly and within reason, of course), and seize these opportunities to teach critical thinking — to teach them the mechanics of the messaging, so they learn at a young age how to use their minds to question and reflect on the world around them in intelligent, informed and healthy ways.

This article was originally published on Sep 03, 2013
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