As little girls grow overly self-conscious, we're all obliged to look into mirror

April 16, 1993|By Orange County Register

In a world of kiddie designer jeans and baby permanents, it's no surprise that little girls are becoming more and more obsessed with their looks.

Advertising, TV and even storybooks teach kids early that things such as Dumbo ears, buck teeth and especially obesity are scarier than the monster under the bed.

Consider the girls at the Garden Grove (Calif.) Girls Club, who recently spent a week fixated on the size of their rear ends after the release of a new music video that focused on posteriors.

"They were into comparing behinds for a while. We had to put a stop to that," director Diane McGranahan said. "Many of them are very self-conscious of how they look. They'll say they're too fat or they're too dumpy-looking -- probably because of the media."

But experts say that parents, themselves heavily influenced by media, are increasingly contributing to that societal pressure, propelling their children -- their daughters especially -- into image-conscious, weight-obsessed adulthood.

"Very early on little girls get the message that it's important to be pretty. Just from innocent comments," said Jennifer Hagman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California at Irvine.

It can be as subtle as consistently describing girls as "pretty and delicate" while defining boys by their brains and accomplishments.

Or as overt as oohing and aahing enthusiastically over a girl's looks while commenting less on her athletic or intellectual qualities, Dr. Hagman says.

"Each incident seems very harmless," said David Laskin, father of three girls and author of "The Little Girl Book," a parenting guide. "But I think they have a way of building and creating attitudes that become difficult to erase."

"I can't say I'm immune from these issues myself," he admits. "Part of the pleasure of having a child is how beautiful they are. I don't want to say, 'Let's never praise a girl for being beautiful.' I think it's a question of balancing it with other compliments."

Parents also make kids overly sensitive about appearance by placing too much emphasis on dressing and grooming, Mr. Laskin said.

But does beauty really have such an ugly side? After all, being pretty looked fun last week at a "glamour party" at Kiddie Korner Koiffures, a Cypress, Calif., salon for kids.

Dressed in their cutest outfits, the little guests got coiffed, manicured, mascaraed and photographed. They selected their eye shadows from a bountiful palette, glossed their lips and posed like little Cindy Crawfords. The tiniest ones got stick-on earrings.

Is that really so wrong, asks Pam Waller, whose 7-year-old daughter, Sarah, has entered hundreds of beauty pageants. At her pageant debut, Sarah was 8 months old.

"Analysts, I swear to God, are so sick," said Ms. Waller, who has a day-care business in Anaheim, Calif. "It was strictly for fun. Each child was special. It might have been only for three hours, but for that short time each one was pampered and special."

Kiddie Korner catches lots of females at the beginning of their beauty rituals. The very beginning. A doctor's wife brought her 18-month-old baby to the salon for her first permanent. She cradled the tot through the procedure -- a stinky initiation into the world of beauty -- and held her dutifully under the hair dryer afterward.

"The baby's hair stuck straight out in all directions and her mother was concerned about the comments people might make," salon owner Gloria Cipri-Kemer said.

But Dr. Hagman says primping parents should beware: Ironically, attractive girls often grow up to be depressed and self-critical if a parent pressures them to be pretty and thin, she said.

But an average-looking girl is likely to be happy if her family values her for deeper qualities.

"There's such emphasis placed on physical appearance that young girls spend a lot of time and energy focused on the way they look and how to change it, even if they look good," Dr. Hagman said.

"Seventy-five percent of women are dieting or think they should be."

When little girls make comments about their "fat thighs" or "fat cheeks," it's probably time for parents to sit down and explain that it's OK for people to come in different shapes and sizes, said psychologist Craig Johnson, head of the eating disorders program at Laureate Psychiatric Hospital in Tulsa, Okla.

Talk about tolerance for different types of people, Dr. Johnson suggested, and the value of having a healthy body.

"It's a chance to create some perspective," he said. "Take it seriously, but give them a chance to talk about it. . . . The underlying issue is self-esteem, whether or not the child has been valued for who they are."

Even if a parent downplays a child's appearance, they could send them the wrong message by worrying too much about their own beauty.

While some starve in the cause of beauty, others, increasingly, are going under the knife.

According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, nearly 24,000 youngsters under age 18 opted for cosmetic surgery such as nose jobs and liposuction in 1990, a gradual increase over the preceding years.

"Where do we stop with this? Where do you stop trying to manipulate the body?" Dr. Johnson asked. "Do we go in and dial in the size and shape and look of the baby we want? We're probably at the point where we have the technology to do that."

"In a society where media models are so thin and airbrushed, obviously we're all going to feel fat and ugly," said Esther Rothblum, a professor at the University of Vermont and author of the book "Overcoming Fear of Fat."

"It's easy to blame parents," she said. "But there's a realistic basis for it: If they don't make their children look the way society wants them to, they won't get jobs. They'll be bullied and stereotyped.

"People are very oppressed for the way they look."

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