Protecting Our Daughters’ Happiness

Having two girls, today’s headline ‘UK Girls Are Becoming More Miserable’ grabbed my attention. It turns out that this ‘misery’ stems from issues with body image and poor self-esteem. The Children’s Society ‘Good Childhood Report’ gives evidence that girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance, and hearing parents talk about ‘dieting’ really doesn’t help.

I have a huge issue with my body image. Although I don’t disclose the true depth of my feelings I, like anyone will chat to friends about ‘feeling fat’ and ‘needing to go on a diet’. This is part of the social dance that we women play. But, understanding the complexity of body image (from personal and professional experience) I’m so careful to steer conversation away from even ‘light-hearted banter’ when little ears are listening.

While body image has been an issue for women across time, in our supposedly advanced and equal world these problems are exacerbated by one prevalent source – mass media.

Research carried out by Dr. Anne Becker, a Professor at Harvard Medical School, studied a population of young Fijian girls who had never been exposed to media. She compared their attitudes to body image before and after Western media was introduced. The results: the key factors associated with eating disorders increased significantly and the girls reported a much greater interest in losing weight and modeling themselves on celebrities. Broader research confirms that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to messages and images conveyed through media.

Mass media affects us all, but as adults we have the knowledge and experience to step back from information rather than let it saturate our thinking. Social media isn’t something we learnt to interact on as teenagers; it’s something we just ‘use’. For young people today it is part of their social infrastructure, it is intertwined with who they are and how they operate. They are in effect drowning in it.

MP Caroline Nokes, who fronts a campaign called ‘Be Real’ says young girls “can make decisions not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world.”

It’s a tall order protecting youngsters from the distorted world we live in. At only 9, I find that simply ‘watching what I say’ isn’t enough to protect my eldest. For example:

  1. People Compliment Her – why is this a problem? –I certainly don’t want people to stop telling her she’s beautiful (it makes me feel good too) but it worries me that outer beauty will become something she depends on. Looks are so fleeting and their judgement so subjective. It’s like watching my child balancing on a knife’s edge and I don’t want to see her fall.
  1. Peer Group Pressure – we’ve just been on holiday and she’s worrying that she hasn’t ‘got enough of a tan’. The girls at school will be sharing tan lines and comparing who got the most sun. I slather her in SPF50 but consequently have to reassure her that ‘getting a tan’ is dangerous for her skin, not something to be proud of. I fear this is just a slippery slope of judgments, evaluations and comparisons.

When these two ancient psychological drivers, looks and a need to belong, become entangled with social and mass media the results are toxic and potentially lethal.

What Can We Do?

Given the reality of our world, there are some pragmatic interventions (I ultimately believe a larger scale solution to this problem needs to be sought which I talk about in my book, but for now):

  • We can encourage schools to run media literacy programs – research shows that these enable youngsters to evaluate the content of programs and advertising more objectively rather than being drawn into it.
  • We can expose our youngsters to positive campaigns – such as ‘Be Real’ which aims to ‘change attitudes to body image and help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.’
  • We should urge schools to empower young girls – providing them with realistic role-models and helping them understand how to appreciate their individuality, their unique talents and their contribution to the world.
  • We need to watch what we say – ‘praising children for acts of kindness rather than for their looks’, not talking about our own body woes or commenting on the appearance of other people carelessly. This may sound too ‘nanny state’, but whilst we have mass media to contend with our comments carry more weight than they have in any other generation.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that while girls are more likely to be affected boys are also impacted, particularly given the increasing prevalence of mass media.

What are your thoughts on this – I’d be really interested to hear?


Links and References:

Becker AE, Burwell RA, Gilman SE, Herzog DB, Hamburg P. Eating behaviours and attitudes following exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002;180:509–14.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education Media Education (RE9911) Policy Statement. Pediatrics. 1999;104:341–3

20 thoughts on “Protecting Our Daughters’ Happiness

  1. I love this Fi. It’s so true how damaging our society is becoming about body image. Your girls are beautiful but you are right that inner beauty is the thing we should all aspire to – outward beauty is subjective and the luck of birth. It’s so sad that celebrities living unreal lives are becoming what people aspire to – the Kardashian’s – remind me again why we even know who they are!!

    1. Celebrities are pushed into our faces, they have not all achieved success through any skill, talent or personal qualities that enables them to stand out as helpful role models. Thank you for your comment.

  2. As always Fi a great thought provoking read & subject matter that is close to my heart!
    Thank you

  3. Yet another great read. Scary to think the impact can start at as tender an age as just 5yrs old. Sad too, whatever happened to “childhood” with all the ‘other’ social pressures of life too.

    1. Thank you – yes so scary that it starts so young. I really do believe something should be done at a level that provides critical mass to counter the impacts. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. So so true. Very well put Fiona. We were so aware of this with our daughter. It is hard especially when you and the child, keep getting compliments as they grow up on how they look, as they are beautiful children. It is possible to win the battle as a parent but you have to be mindful and aware and engaged with their world all the time. It’s hard work, but it can be done and you know when the battle has been won when the compliments you receive are more about who she is not what she looks like. However, although the worry is still there, now that our daughter is a young woman, I’ll happily take the reflected glory when she does receive compliments on how she looks, as it doesn’t affect who she has become🙂

  5. Great article and one close to my heart. Who knew parenting was going to be so challenging. It is frightening how quickly the girls of today are growing up. As a mother of ‘one of each’ I see the differences in the sexes so much more clearly and advice about how we can look after our daughters in a different world to the one we grew up in is always appreciated.

  6. I am very pleased you addressed this subject Fi! I think it is important to promote body image in a positive way. I believe being “healthy” as you mentioned, is the way to go about it. Eating healthily and exercise/ sport as ways of keeping bodies heathy should be promoted both at schools and at home.
    But I do worry about the media and the messages it gives out to young girls. Once they get a smart phone by secondary school age, the control over what they read and look at is minimised. Definitely important to keep the dialogue open with our children, admittedly sometimes it’s not so easy!
    Great blog!!

    1. Thanks for your comment Medona. I think being healthy is so important as is open dialogue. If they trust us and talk to us we can mitigate some of the negative impact.

  7. Very true words. I would also add that we can highlight to our kids that we live in a very false world that the media hooks us to. We’ve used our smart TV to show them YouTube footage of the amount of photoshop work that gets done to images after they are taken.

    My daughter is certainly not taken in by it although it does leave peer pressure and the need to conform. A much harder one to cracking when you aren’t with them all day.

    Maybe my son is the model that bucks the trend. He still shrugs and wonders what all the deal is about twitter and facebook. If people want to get hold of him they either send an email, phone him or even better, look up from their latest Pokemon Go battle and talk to him 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment Simon. Totally agree and great idea re YouTube, while that’s what the media literacy courses do there is no reason we can’t do it at home.

  8. Never a truer word was said – social media has brought peer pressure to a whole new level. My daughter’s secondary school has a positive approach to the issue but influences elsewhere hold sway too often.
    The Girl Guiding movement have developed a fantastic program to help girls think positively about body image – delivered by older guides, known as ‘peer educators’, not adult leaders. See

    1. Thanks for your comment Elizabeth and for the really useful link. I think it’s critical that we create a mass movement in the opposing direction to help protect our children as much as we can. Hence any info shared is fantastic.

  9. As you say – boys must not be forgotten. IMO a bigger issue, and I am saying this as a mother of three girls. So much pressure to be strong, lean, have a six pack – just had a 13 year old stay who would not eat diner for fear of getting fat. But come on parents – lighten up! I still remember getting ostracised from a post NCT parent and toddler group for the vicious crime of having brought home baked chocolate biscuits to a meeting. It was strictly sawdust bread sticks only for the precious youngsters…. Food is food, and everything in moderation is my mantra.

  10. Thank you for highlighting this – and the Be Real campaign which I’m interested to look at.

    I have so much to say on this subject and yet don’t know where to start. It scares me immensely to bring both a daughter and a son up in this social media world. But concentrating on being naturally healthy is a good place to start, as well as modelling behaviour ourselves. Getting our kids outdoors, living a life that’s closer to nature and that’s more real, less fake.

    Also as someone who eats very healthily for health, not weight, issues, (and I am still a big fan of a chocolate brownie – or two) I really like the ‘count chemicals not calories’ campaign.

    Great article as always x

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