Where has my little girl gone?

As ever-younger girls feel the need to diet, use lipstick and dress in provocative clothing, parenting author Tanith Carey considers how to protect our young girls from the pressure to act sexy. 

Tanith Carey considers how to protect our young girls from the pressure to act sexy

“In our house, there is one four-letter word which is expressly forbidden,” says UK parenting author and mother of two, Tanith Carey. “It’s D. I. E. T.”

Ever since she interviewed the mother of an anorexic six-year-old and heard how her daughter wanted to be slim like the models she saw in magazines, Tanith made a point of not so much as uttering the word within earshot of her two young daughters, Lily and Clio. “If other adults brought up their own regimes within my children’s hearing, I discreetly changed the subject, lest impressionable ears soak up the idea that it’s a woman’s lot to constantly starve herself.”

But despite careful monitoring of her girls’ exposure to magazines, television and the internet, Tanith was shocked one day when seven-year-old Lily announced she was on a diet because a friend had said she was fat. In the floods of tears that followed, three-year-old Clio piped up: “Yes, thin means you’re perfect!”

“It was clear that peer pressure and the expectation that girls should look a certain way held much more sway over Lily than the sense of love and acceptance I’d tried to cultivate,” says Tanith in her latest book, Where Has My Little Girl Gone? “She was being fast-tracked through childhood despite my best efforts to protect her.”

Have you noticed that Barbie looks like a natural beauty these days, compared to many other dolls in the toy store? Commercial sexualisation is an issue that should concern everyone, whether they are parents of young girls or not, wrote Tanith in the Guardian last year. “It is in the air our children breathe. It’s not a tap you switch off with a few shiny new rules and regulations. It’s more like gas that seeps into society at every level.” And if any doubt remains over the power of the media to shape beliefs, attitudes and behaviour in relation to body image, it was clearly demonstrated by a landmark study into the arrival of television in Fiji in 1991.

Overall, researchers believe that a girl’s father has more of a role in building her self-esteem than her mother. According to the UK Children’s Society, daughters of men who take an active role in parenting develop better friendships, more empathy and higher self-worth, and are happier in their lives. Girls need to believe they are individuals who make their own judgements and decisions. 

Before television, local women were admired for their full, curvy figures. But Harvard Medical School researchers found that body dissatisfaction among girls rose from 12.7 percent to 29.2 percent within three years of the introduction of TV. Meanwhile, dieting among Fijian teenagers who watched TV also soared to two in every three girls. Popular magazines can be just as influential – one recent analysis of young girls’ magazines by the Australia Institute found up to 75 percent of their content was sexualising material.

In a study by the UK Mental Health Foundation, more than a quarter of children said they “often felt depressed” – and the thing that makes girls most unhappy is how they look. As early as nine and ten, young girls are already judging themselves as losers in the beauty contest of life, the researchers concluded.

“My daughters don’t deserve this – and neither do yours,” says Tanith. But there’s no use in trying to lock them away, like Rapunzel in the tower. Sex and body image are so deeply woven into the fabric of music, advertising, TV, magazines, fashion and the internet that it’s impossible to stem the flood of messages. Instead, we need to give our girls the tools to deal with these messages in healthy ways.

The best defence your daughter can have against the oversexualised society she finds herself in is a strong sense of self-esteem, says Tanith. “When a little girl feels that being sexy is the reason she is valued, she’s more likely to spend time and energy on winning that praise – instead of devoting time to other areas of her life, like education [or] sport,” says Linda Papadopoulos, author of the UK Home Office’s 2010 Sexualisation of Young People Review.

Giving your daughter a secure identity will also immunise her against any need she may feel in her teenage years to win approval from her peers through precocious sexual behaviour, advises Tanith. “If we can create a strong core of values during our girls’ formative years, they’ll be more able to stand against the pressure of friends who may encourage her to act against her true self.”

Another crucial building block in a girl’s self-esteem is the involvement of her father, says Tanith. “Whether, rightly or wrongly, a girl sees it as her mother’s natural role to care for her, she feels that time spent with her dad is his choice.”

10 ideas for fostering a positive attitude

Choose toys carefully
Let your little girls be children by buying them dolls that are children too. Don’t buy dolls with cleavage – look for less sexual toys such as stuffed animals or rag dolls.

“Where has my little girl gone? How to protect your daughter from growing up too soon” $22 Lion Hudson/New Holland, 2011 

2 Find a pastime she loves
Help your daughter find an activity into which she can escape, separate from school and the pressure to compete. It may be music or an absorbing craft that provides a chance to withdraw and relax.

3 Don’t make a virtue of being ordinary
Some parents are happy if their children ‘fit in’. But children need to feel unique in some way; it’s hard to feel good about yourself if you think you have nothing to offer. Celebrate her creativity as well as her likes and dislikes.

4 Celebrate achievements
Children can quickly forget how much they’ve learned – especially when they feel they still have a long way to go. Keep scrapbooks or albums showing your daughter’s progress. Mark milestones and keep family rituals so your child knows you are recognising and welcoming her getting older.

5 Teach her about brands and fads
Buy a box of brand-name cornflakes as well as a ‘no frills’ version. Ask her if she can spot the differences in the ingredients and she will likely discover they are essentially the same. Talk about the crazes or must-have toys that came and went in your childhood to show her how fleeting trends are.

6 Make food no big deal
The best thing you can do for your daughter is to make eating normally no big deal, just a part of life. Don’t express guilt over food or talk about ‘fat days’. Without a fuss or fanfare, quietly make sure a range of nutritious food is available in your home.

7 Don’t make ‘skinny’ a virtue
Compliment your child’s body on what it does, not what it looks like. Find a sport your daughter loves, so she can learn to see her body as something useful and powerful, not something to be judged on appearance. Praise female athletes for their strength and muscle tone instead of admiring celebrities for their skinny figures.

8 Read magazines together
If she’s interested in fashion, by all means look at the latest magazines, but talk about how unrealistic the pictures are. Discuss the fine line between inappropriate and fashionable, and show her beautifully dressed women who don’t show off too much flesh.

9 Divert attention away from makeup
There’s no denying that little girls are interested in adornment, so channel her creativity into crafts such as making her own jewellery. At some point, she’ll be invited to a party where other little girls put on makeup; explain that while this may be what her friends do, your family has other values.

10 Praise the ‘natural look’
Divert older girls from lipstick to lip balm, and from foundation to tinted moisturiser with an SPF to send her the message that the best makeup protects and enhances. Don’t be too preoccupied with makeup yourself and explain that real beauty comes from healthy, fresh-faced looks.

Tanith Carey is a UK journalist and author of five books, including Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe, a collection of history’s worst agony aunt advice, and her latest book, the widely acclaimed Where Has My Little Girl Gone? How to protect your daughter from growing up too soon ($22 Lion Hudson/New Holland, 2011)

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