Hi Dr Justin,
I wanted to ask your advice about my 2.5 year old daughter. Recently she said to me that she is not pretty. I was really taken aback from it and found it quite upsetting and concerning. Obviously I reinforced that she was pretty, she is very much a "girly girl" everything pink and dresses etc (with six girls of your own I’m sure you know what I mean) but observing her further she says she is not pretty if she is not wearing a dress for example. I tried explaining that you don’t need to be wearing a dress or pretty shoes to be "pretty" but she still keeps saying it. I'm worried she has body image insecurities already! Could you please let me know any advice you could give me? I am just ignoring her now but don't know if this is the right approach either.
Dr Justin responds:
Your question reminded me of some home videos in our family collection. Growing up as a child of the 70’s and 80’s, my siblings and I – and most kids, it seems – ran around without ever worrying about how we looked. All that mattered was how much fun we could have. Sure, my sisters loved to play with mum’s makeup so they could look “beautiful” but that was generally the extent of it.
Today, however, body image issues are common in children. The Butterfly Foundation reports that approximately 26% of youth are worried about their appearance. Other research suggests at least 40% of children wish to change how they look. Typically these concerns arise from about age 8, but children as young as 2 can become obsessed about being pretty, or strong, or looking a particular way.
Entire books have been written about this issue, and there is more to say than we have space for. Here are three things you can do starting today to help ANY child who is experiencing concerns about their appearance.
Modeling Good Body Image
Our children are always watching us and learning from us, and never more so than when they are young. What are they seeing and hearing? Do we complain about our weight or figure? Do we obsess over the scales? Do we count calories in front of them, dialing in on diets that restrict certain foods or disallow eating before or after a certain time? Do we fret about our fitness, or get jumpy if we miss the gym?
Body Image and the Media
There is irrefutable evidence that exposure to media, regardless of what age our children are, impacts on the way they see the world and the way that they see themselves. For younger children, Disney princesses have been shown to affect the way they adopt stereotypical behaviour or perceive their body, and for older children and even adults, idols like the Kardashians or whoever's hot can have an impact. Studies have shown that merely being exposed to magazines can change how we perceive ourselves - and that's as adults. As such, minimise your daughter's exposure to media.
What we say
When we meet people, we often comment on their appearance. “Wow, you look fantastic! Have you lost weight?” “Oh, I love that dress. You look gorgeous.” These comments to other adults emphasise appearance ahead of character. And while compliments on appearance are almost always well received, they teach our children that we are looking more at how they look than at who they are.
Parents of little girls are particularly likely to receive comments that are appearance focused. We tell them how pretty they are all the time. One dad shared that his little girl came crying one day. He asked why and she explained that “today I’m not wearing my dress and you didn’t tell me I’m pretty. You only say it when I wear a dress.”
Let go of looks
When our children fret about how they look, attempting to reassure them that they’re pretty or handsome comes across as hollow. So, too, does saying, “It doesn’t matter how you look.” Their experience tells them otherwise. Instead, we can say things like, “I love you when you wear shorts, and dresses, and even pyjamas!” Then move on to other things that matter more, like tickles, hugs, and fun.
There are many other ways to reduce the focus your daughter has on the way she looks. And these change as children get older. Redirecting energy into active pursuits where looks are irrelevant, developing skills, finding ways to help others, and more are all options. But for now, focus on what you say about your own appearance, what you say about hers, and how much (and what type of) media she sees.