You're not just imagining it. Girls are starting to think about their ideal body at an earlier age. In her book Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, psychology researcher Renee Engeln cites the infuriating data: Thirty-four per cent of five-year-old girls deliberately restrict what they eat at least "sometimes". And 28 per cent of these girls say they want their bodies to look like the women in films and on TV.
Five years old. It's an age when kids are supposed to spend their days digging for bugs and making paper-bag puppets, not wondering if their arms jiggle too much when they run. In our culture, there's an obsession with appearance, and the consequences of it include depression, eating disorders, and disruptions in cognitive processing.
At elite universities, faculty members have been noticing a problem. Many students, while impressive on paper, seem to be unable to cope with simple struggles — getting assigned to a dorm room they're not thrilled with, scoring less than an A-minus on a midterm, or not making the cut on school teams. The lack of resilience has become so apparent that Smith College now offers an entire course on how to fail. (One uncomfortable class project. Having your worst failures projected onto a large screen in the campus hub. Ouch.)
Engeln, who gave a TEDx talk about what she's calling the "epidemic of beauty sickness", believes that small changes in how girls think and talk about themselves can help them become more comfortable in their skin.
In her book, she offers this fill-in-the-blank exercise that allowed women in one of her studies to feel more gratitude for their bodies. It can be used with young girls, too.
I use my arms to __________.
My body helps me to __________.
I love that my body can ___________.
My legs allow me to __________.
My body feels strongest when _________.
Engeln found that focusing on what their bodies could do led women to feel better about how their bodies looked. For kids, the exercise can be paired with empowering books such as Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves.