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Raising a daughter who’s happy in her own skin isn’t easy. For years, parents have worried about the unrealistic way women are depicted in media, advertising, pop culture, even video games. Many try to counter this influence by pointing out to their daughters that commercial images of women are often manipulated by people hoping to make a profit.
Social media poses different challenges, largely because girls themselves are creating and commenting on their own images. This gives them tremendous power — and makes them hugely vulnerable. On platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, appearance can become a competitive sport as girls vie for emoji, likes, and followers.
Selfies in particular push girls to compare themselves with peers at their prettiest, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that the fastest way to get more likes is to be thin, skilled with make-up, and dressed in revealing clothing. A recent survey by Common Sense Media found that, among teens who post online, 35 percent are worried about being tagged in unattractive photos, 27 percent feel anxious about their appearance in posted photos, and 25 percent take it personally when their photos are ignored.
Parents may not be able to dominate the conversations about appearance that are going on in social media, but they can and should comment. Girls need to hear from mothers who have come to terms with their own body issues and fathers who appreciate women for more than their faces and figures. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Don’t dismiss. For better or worse, people do make judgments about each other based on how they present themselves physically, so your daughter’s concerns about how she looks are valid. And for girls who constantly see images that have been filtered and photoshopped to match an ideal, the curves and pimples of puberty can feel like a crisis. Parents cannot change the prevailing culture, but you can help your daughter think clearly about two things. First, how much will she allow herself to be influenced by what others think about her looks? Encourage her not to give power to those who don’t deserve it. Second, how will she evaluate others? Help her understand that other qualities — integrity, intelligence, sense of humor, compassion — are more important than appearance.
Be aware of the awful. Yes, there really are pro anorexia (pro-ana) and thinspiration (thinspo) websites that encourage girls to starve themselves and praise them when they post emaciated photos. Yes, girls post “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube and, perhaps not surprisingly, attract the attention of trolls. Apps like Hot or Not exist simply to rate the physical attractiveness of users. Although many girls are turned off by these sites, others are susceptible to their appeal.
Point out possibilities. Social media gives girls more opportunities to find allies who will encourage them to be themselves, without conforming to other people’s ideas about how they should look. Some girls, for example, post what they call “uglyselfies” — unadorned photos that mock conventional ideas about beauty. Others, like actress Amy Pohler’s Smart Girls website, post info that emphasize accomplishments or insights instead of appearance. Girls can also follow celebrities like Lorde and Emma Watson who have been outspoken about the way representations of women are manipulated and exploited.
Critique photos. A photo can capture a “real” moment or it can be a performance. Talk to your daughter about how she chooses the photos she decides to post online. What is she trying to express about herself? How does she edit her images and why? What kind of feedback does she hope to get? How will she feel if people misunderstand what she is trying to communicate? You can ask similar questions about the photos her friends post online. Do specific photos capture what she likes about her friend or their relationship? Do others make her uncomfortable?
Filter feedback. Teens long for feedback from peers — as long as it is positive. Negative comments can be crushing, so parents need to help children develop defenses. Rather than accepting hostile or cruel comments as objectively “true,” teach kids to understand them as a reflection of the other person’s state of mind. People who are happy with themselves don’t feel the need to attack others. Encourage your child to be constructive in her own comments — supporting and encouraging other girls instead of tearing them down.
Get real. Positive role models have an enormous effect on kids. Be sure your daughter knows plenty of real life women who are comfortable with themselves. Surround her with female role models — grandmas and aunts, teachers and coaches, your own colleagues and friends. Talk about the accomplishments of these women and the qualities you admire in them. Most of all, model a lifestyle that includes a balanced approach to eating and exercise. And create a family environment in which every member is respected for who they are and what they can do rather than how they happen to look on any given day.
Learn how images are changed
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