Tween girls’ perceptions of the “just-right” body ideal and what it means for them socially

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We’ve all heard the criticisms of the typical thin body shapes of animated Disney princesses. But research shows that the appearance of real-life “Disney Girls” also has a striking impact on how tween girls view themselves.

If your daughters are like mine, they know who Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus (the pre-twerking Miley), Taylor Swift, and Demi Lovato are. It turns out that tween girls don’t just know who they are, but they get their lessons on what it means to be beautiful from them. A study in the Journal of Children and Media interviewed girls ages 9-11 and had them create photo collages of women in the media. Here’s what tween girls had to say about the “ideal” body:

  • The ideal body is not too heavy and not too thin. Somewhere around a size 7.
  • Girls smaller than that want to be heavier and girls bigger than that want to be thinner.
  • Certain practices are required to be pretty, such as wearing matching clothes, using makeup, eating and exercising in moderation, and having nicely brushed hair and clear skin.
  • It requires money to be pretty. “Ugly” girls look the way they do because they lack the money it takes to be “pretty.”

And guess who tween girls said were the ideals of beauty to which they aspired—that’s right, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and Taylor Swift.

It’s clear then—and it’s no surprise—that there is social pressure to look a certain way, even if it’s not the extremely thin, but big busted, woman we hear about the most as the “ideal” shape for a woman. The study also found that tween girls have certain ideas of what looking a certain way would do for them socially. They said that if they looked like the real-life “Disney Girls,” they would:

  • Have lots of money
  • Be treated differently
  • Have lots of friends
  • Be more popular, and thus, happier
  • Get more attention from boys
  • Would not get picked on as much

The study also found that the process of creating picture collages and then talking about them actually gave tween girls a chance to notice that some women don’t appear in the media, and that was frustrating for some of them. In other words, tween girls are able to critically analyze the media’s representation of women, if given the chance. Other research, however, shows that talking to girls about the media’s beauty ideal actually encourages girls to adopt those ideals as their own. So what can parents do?

The parenting takeaway

Remember, I’m not a woman. But I am a dad. A dad who wants his daughters to value themselves for who they are, not for how they look. It appears to me that the way to talk to girls about beauty, then, might be to talk to them about what is not presented in the media, rather than what is. We might ask questions like “What skin color is not shown in that ad?” or “What hair color is missing from that commercial?” Maybe even “What size woman should really be included in order to relate to most women?”

And if tween girls already have a developed sense of social rules about their appearance, then those conversations need to start even younger than that. As a dad, I want to give my girls a fighting chance. Having conversations to get them critically thinking about what’s missing seems like a good place to start.

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