For too many American girls, being "model thin" is a very real aspiration, and it starts at a shockingly young age. In one recent study, researchers found that TV programs focused on appearance are swaying the self-esteem of girls as young as 5.
It's no wonder. Bombarded with countless media images of thin female models and actresses who look beautiful by modern American standards and appear happy, many girls -- including the youngest and most impressionable -- view them as role models. It doesn't help that real-life role models, mothers in particular, too often openly obsess about their own weight; that male role models, like dads and older brothers, make clear their preference for thinner women; and that an overwhelming percentage of girls' clothing features body-hugging, midriff-baring styles most comfortably worn by the ultra-thin.
At WebMD, we talked to experts to find out which factors influence girls' ideas about body image and what parents can do to help their daughters develop a healthy attitude about their own bodies. Here's what we learned.
The Power of Media Images
The average teen girl gets about 180 minutes of media exposure daily and only about 10 minutes of parental interaction a day, says Renee Hobbs, EdD, associate professor of communications at Temple University.
In an attempt to emulate the countless media images they view, girls often take drastic measures. Many end up with very low self-esteem; some with dangerous eating disorders. "We're seeing girls at younger ages starting to be dissatisfied with their bodies, proactively trying to change them, and feeling like they need to emulate something different than what their bodies can do," says Elissa Gittes, MD, a pediatrician in the division of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
So what's a parent to do? Hide every magazine, turn off every TV, and ban Barbie dolls -- those incredibly thin yet curvaceous toys favored by girls as young as 3? Banning media exposure altogether may backfire. "It only creates the forbidden fruit phenomenon," Hobbs tells WebMD.
Parents Should Get Involved
Experts suggest that parents' energy is better spent getting their daughters to look at and think critically about the unrealistic way the media portrays girls and women. This is most likely to occur if mom or dad is engaged in the process, too.