More than half of girls ages 9 to 12 think about their looks "almost all the time" or "many times a day," according to new research from KidsHealth.org.
The website, along with Discovery Girls magazine, surveyed more than 11,500 girls and 2,400 moms about body image and appearance and found that the preoccupation starts young and holds firm.
Little wonder, given how frequently the topic seeps into discussions about women, whether they're opera stars or politicians. We may be on the eve of nominating our first female presidential candidate, but who can forget the "Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts, Left Wing" buttons sold outside a GOP event in Anaheim, Calif., last year?
I can't, obviously.
Anyway, the study. It focused broadly on appearance and, more narrowly, on how a girl's self-image is shaped by her mom's own self-talk. Fifty-five percent of surveyed moms admitted to complaining about their own looks, frequently in front of their daughters. Weight was the most common complaint, with 76 percent of moms saying they often talk about wanting to lose weight.
Such comments have a profound effect on our daughters, says child and adolescent psychologist D'Arcy Lyness, a behavioral health editor at KidsHealth who was closely involved with the study.
"If a girl hears her mom voice negative thoughts about her own looks, she learns to be self-critical," Lyness told me today. "She learns to seek out problems and focus on what she doesn't like about herself.
"We don't just model behavior," Lyness continued. "We model attitudes and beliefs. We model outlook."
As statements go, that's about as powerful as they come: We model outlook.
The world promises our girls, from the day they start taking in images, that they will be judged by their looks — by their weight and clothes and hair and skin. It offers extremely narrow parameters for success in these realms. It makes good on this promise each and every day.
It trains them, in other words, to think about their looks "almost all the time."
But we model their outlook. We arm them (or disarm them) with our words about our own bodies, our own reactions to a culture whose ideals we may not even share.
"If, as a mom, I focus on what I like about how I look and I put a little more emphasis on what I'm good at, my daughter can learn to focus on what she likes about herself too," Lyness said. "We can give her a quiet confidence."
She'll need it.
"When we appreciate our own beauty — and every girl is beautiful — we take good care of our bodies and know our bodies are valuable," Lyness said. "If my body image is negative, that leads me toward not feeding my body well, not exercising, not taking care of myself, not making sure others respect my physical self."
It's not enough, Lyness said, to simply change the subject. It's tempting to swing in the opposite direction — drop the negative comments and, heck, drop the appearance comments altogether. Who needs them?
"Given the culture we live in, it's almost inescapable for girls to be aware of the standards around appearance and beauty," Lyness said. "If you say, 'Looks aren't important. Don't worry about that,' you really just shut down the topic. I can say appearance isn't important, but that doesn't mean my daughter won't think it is."
By all means, she said, talk about other things. Talk mostly about other things, in fact. But talk, also, about appearance. And try to talk about your own positively.
Need a nudge? Consider this statistic, from the same study:
When asked about their moms, 91 percent of girls described them as "beautiful."