Dear Well-Meaning Parents and Educators: Stop Giving Girls Self-Esteem Problems
This week, The Atlantic published The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus. Obviously, I agreed wholeheartedly -- I am all about the interpersonal basis for abnormal psychology. I've written all about developing resilience and coping skills in high school and college students.
Besides, it's basically the exact same thing I said about little girls and body image when the well-meaning parents and educators threw a big, fat hissy fit over the size of Lily James's waist when the Cinderella trailer came out last March.
Which is ridiculous. Kids love fantasy. They love imaginary play. Here, we've got a whole movie about a girl with a fairy godmother and a pumpkin turning into a carriage and mice turning into coach drivers... but the only thing that parents worry is "unrealistic" is Lily James's waist?
Likewise, we've got parents who are "banning Barbie" in favor of Barbie's more "realistic" cousin, Lammily.
Lammily has "average proportions," and, for $7, you can even buy "marks" to put on her -- so your doll can have scars, acne, stretch marks, moles and cellulite.
So, show of hands! Who knew what stretch marks and cellulite were when you were eight?
Who, as an eight-year-old child, thought, "Wow! My Barbie doll has such unrealistic proportions! Real women have smaller breasts! Average women have sorter legs and thicker necks! And where is her acne?"
No one. Because kids are experts at imaginary play. They are experts at creativity and curiosity. And they are not sophisticated enough consumers to see Barbie as anything but a toy -- a blank slate. She can be a villain, a scuba diver, a veterinarian... or, yes, a cheerleader or fashion model. (Sorry -- is there a problem with traditionally feminine occupations?) Heck, Barbie can even be used as a weapon, a projectile or a paintbrush.
Meanwhile, it appears that all Lammily's ever done is travel. (Don't miss her London, Rio and Denmark outfits...) And in the course of promoting "average" body image, she's alerted girls all over the world that they are not pretty enough -- that they must be protected from interactions with "skinny bitches" like Barbie and Cinderella. That they will never be as skinny or beautiful as Princess Jasmine or Ariel.
Still not following? Think of it this way: kids don't look at her and compare their (pre-pubescent) bodies to Jasmine and Ariel. Kids don't look at Barbie and feel bad about themselves. Unless... (wait for it)... adults tell them to.
"Wait!" the well-meaning parents and educators may be stammering. "I never told them that!"
Except you did. Kids are excellent social modelers. They are experts on picking up on your fears, attitudes and behaviors. Even when they're babies, they can read your emotions to decide what is "safe," and what is dangerous. A baby will literally crawl off a (perceived) cliff is the mother's face indicates that it is safe to do so.
When you get all uncomfortable about skinny, beautiful women, your kids notice. When you kindly explain to your daughters that Cinderella is unrealistic and they shouldn't compare themselves to her, you send the message they are not, and will never be, as beautiful as Cinderella. That you find some cartoon character or adult actress more beautiful than your own daughters. That beauty is skin deep. And that if you are not beautiful, you should feel bad. Because skinny, beautiful people make people like you feel bad.
You teach them that beauty is a girl's main source of confidence. And the only way for a girl not to develop body-image issues is to avoid and reject images of beautiful women.
Not to mention the whole sexist double standard. I don't hear people complaining about how unrealistically strong and handsome Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) and Christoff (Frozen) are. Even though -- whoa! Check out how unrealistic they are:
He uses antlers in all of his decorating.
Sure, you might argue. But from an evolutionary standpoint, men aren't selected for their beauty! They're selected for their ability to provide.
Fine. Then how come you didn't complain about how unrealistically wealthy Bat Man and Iron Man are? (After all, there are a hell of a lot more size 0's than there are multibillionaires in this world.)
Tony Stark's Mansion
It's sexist. It's a double standard. It's insulting. And it's harmful to young girls.
Perhaps Mindy Kaling puts it best in her amazing new book (which you should drop everything and go read right now), Why Not Me?
A general assumption about confidence is that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it. Just the attitude alone makes me sad: "We have to help our girls and teach them to be confident." Well, guess what, young girls. You aren't damsels in distress. You aren't hostages to the words of your peers. You aren't the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are.
Kaling also stated in a 2013 interview,
I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’" she said. "I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?
So, long story short: stop teaching girls that beautiful women should make them feel bad. Stop telling girls that they're worth less if they're not skinny. Stop destroying girls' innocence, and forcing them to think (and feel bad) about things they never would have thought (or felt bad) about if you hadn't said, "Oh, don't worry that you're not as pretty as Lily James! She's unrealistic!" "You're beautiful just the way you are. Just... not beautiful enough that you shouldn't feel bad, intimidated and ugly because of your favorite Disney princesses."
It's kind of like when you ask someone, "Hey, are you okay?" "Hey, you look tired." "Are you feeling okay?" In all likelihood, they were totally fine. But now, your dumbass, inconsiderate question made them feel bad -- like, "Wait! Maybe I am tired!" "Why would he ask that -- do I look bad today? Was what I just said stupid?" You're disempowering an already disadvantaged group, and that is a very bad thing.
Please don't do that to your students and/or daughters.
10/18/2015 01:14:50 am
Can't thank you enough for this article. I've met countless of my peers feel inferior just because other people are pointing out that they aren't as pretty as some model but then they were told to just be themselves at the end of the day, which I find very confusing and frustrating. I hope this cycle stops one way or the other. Thank you and Mindy Kaling for a refreshing insight.
10/27/2015 12:46:39 pm
I am perusing your blog again after discovering it (by falling into an internet rabbit hole) a few weeks ago. Thank you for this entry. Funnily enough, my son (who is Caucasian with light skin and light-ish brown hair) saw a photo of an animated Asian-looking boy in fantasy "Ninja" gear with darker skin and black hair. He said "Mama, this boy looks like me!" and I'm sure it's because he wants to dress up as a Ninja for Halloween. It's true kids don't have a sense of looking or not looking like another person. It is well-meaning adults who try to protect children's feelings who end up doing just the opposite when they condemn Barbie's or Disney princesses unrealistic shape.
11/11/2015 09:36:55 am
Thank you for this article! Nowadays, I attract a bunch of glares if I dare say the following sentence: "I played with Barbies when I was little and didn't notice anything about her body type."
12/18/2015 09:21:48 am
I respectfully disagree. I recall being age 10 thinking "I sure hope I grow up to be beautiful like my Barbie/a princess/models etc" I was already aware of how "unusual" my nose and teeth were (due to bullying) and knew that other girls were already getting more attention from boys. Girls need all the help they can get understanding that their differences are beautiful and not "alien" or "ugly" to the world.
6/9/2017 08:13:42 am
I think your post pretty problematic to be honest. For instance,you say “You teach them that beauty is a girl's main source of confidence. And the only way for a girl not to develop body-image issues is to avoid and reject images of beautiful women.”
6/9/2017 05:05:24 pm
I'm sure there's a healthy way to do it -- but the way some parents and educators freak out about Barbie these days, you'd think she was a smallpox blanket. And, like I said, kids learn their fears and insecurities directly from us.
5/11/2021 04:15:24 am
What a great article, really in sync with my own thoughts on the topic
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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