Q. My third grade daughter is really stressed out by the pressures the girls feel to dress and look a certain way. How can I help her understand she is beautiful just the way she is. And to help her stop criticizing her looks and weight.

A. As the parent of two young daughters, I appreciate the importance of your concern. Girls are bombarded with idealized and sexualized imagery everywhere they look. Popular television shows perpetuate standards of appearance that are unreal. This phenomena is not new; the Barbie doll has been with us for decades. What is new are marketing strategies that propagate a downward extension of oppressive and demeaning attitudes about what it means to be beautiful. The impossible standards of high school are now the impossible standards of elementary school.

smiling middle school and elementary age girlsThe solution? I find that the best defense in a strong offense. Confront damaging images and messages aimed at girls and women every chance you get. Sit with your daughter and watch a program she watches,  or review a magazine or book she reads. Find teachable moments to point out gender inequality, the absence of people with diverse body types, or sexist, sexualized messages and imagery.

For example, a parent shared with me recently that in the new Disney film Tangled, Rapunzel’s hair is gold when it is ‘magic,’ but brown when it is not. This sends a message that blonde hair is more beautiful than brown hair. Discuss this type of thing with your child;  tell her that you find that message offensive, and help her identify how she feels when she perceives negative messages about her body.

In addition to declaring war on media imagery, review your own behavior. Listen for negative comments you make about your own appearance. Notice how many magazines in your house feature slim women on the cover and promise weight-loss secrets inside, and make a point of getting rid of them.  Do you talk about foods you ‘shouldn’t eat,’ deny yourself dessert at the restaurant, or lament about your cloths getting tighter?  If so, you are unwittingly transferring your own negative body image beliefs to your daughter.

Finally, don’t just tell your daughter she is beautiful point out the diversity of beauty in yourself, in your family, and in your daughter’s peer group.

There are some excellent books geared toward developing a positive body image in the American Girl series that you may want to review with your child. If your daughter’s body image does not improve, or if you are concerned that there may be an  issue such as depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder developing, consider consulting with a child psychologist or other mental health provider to help your daughter find the beauty in herself.