Chances are you remember the rumblings in the news about the American Psychological Association and their groundbreaking discovery that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development.1 When I heard it on the news, I stared at my TV in total disbelief and mumbled, "Nah! Ya think?" The study took aim at everything from sexually salacious ads to the tarted-up Bratz dolls popular with young girls. Every forum of media was fair game, including video games, song lyrics, magazines, and the round-the-clock bombardment of sexual images found on television and the Internet.
Sexualization was defined by the task force as occurring when a person's value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, i.e., made into a thing for another's sexual use. While the overall finding of the study may not come as a surprise, it should serve as a wake-up call for parents who have somehow rationalized that it's a battle not worth fighting. Take a look at some of the fallout the study confirmed:
According to the task force report, parents can play a major role in contributing to the sexualization of their daughters, or they can play a protective and educative role. The study acknowledges that parents may actually contribute to the sexualization of their daughters in a number of ways. One way is to convey the message that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal for girls. As abhorrent as it is, we have all heard rumblings about parents who even go so far as to pay for plastic surgery for their daughters, whether it's a nose job at sixteen or a boob job for graduation. It certainly leaves their daughters clear on where mom and dad stand on the importance of vanity.
Before we look at ways to protect our daughters from sexualizing messages from the media, we must first examine ourselves to see if perhaps we have propagated this damaging message. If outer appearance is important to you and out of balance, chances are you have passed the same mind-set onto your daughter. Hopefully, after reading this section you will have a better grasp on why God tells us that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" and further wants us to "know that full well" (Ps. 139:14). It may even be necessary to go to your daughter and apologize for the part you may have played in emphasizing outer appearance to an unhealthy degree. I have certainly had to own up to this in the past with my own daughter.
Next we need to put our daughters on a media diet. While it would be impossible to shield them from every damaging influence, we can certainly draw a line in the sand when it comes to the worst offenders. Below, you will find a list of the worst offenders and tips on how to limit your daughters' consumption and exposure to the damaging lies they generate.
A University of Minnesota study found that teenage girls who frequently read magazine articles about dieting were more likely five years later to practice extreme weight-loss measures than girls who never read such articles. The study further found that "girls in middle school who read dieting articles were twice as likely five years later to try to lose weight by fasting or smoking cigarettes, compared to girls who never read such articles. They were three times more likely to use measures such as vomiting or taking laxatives." Coauthor of the study, Patricia van den Berg offers this advice to parents: "It possibly would be helpful to teen girls if their mothers didn't have those types of magazines around."1
One has to wonder if the primary agenda of the fashion magazines is to create a level of dissatisfaction among their female readers regarding their overall body image in an effort to keep them running back for more and more advice on how to achieve this impossible beauty ideal. As they absorb this message that their worth and value stem from their outer appearance and their chief aim is to please the opposite sex, parents are left to sweep up the mess in the years to come. As a longtime opponent of fashion magazines and their message of objectification to our young women, I would love to see parents put them in the same dangerous category as drugs and alcohol. It's time to ban this harmful filth from our homes and begin the detox process if we or our daughters have bought into the lie.
When I was growing up, the word slut was whispered under one's breath and used sparingly. If you were labeled a "slut," your reputation was sealed.
Today, the word is commonplace in every teen's vocabulary. Since when did it become a compliment to be called a slut? Good girls are called sluts. Bad girls are called sluts. Church girls are called sluts. If your daughter is in high school or older, chances are, she's been called a slut. And unless you step in and do something about it, she will probably just smile and shrug it off as a term of endearment.
How did such a word become so acceptable? Could it be the hip-hop/rap culture that cranks out song after song depicting women as "hoes" whose lifelong aspiration is to serve their "pimps"? Of the thirty-two songs with an "explicit" rating in 2004, twenty-seven were in the hip-hop/rap genre.2 These are the songs being played over and over again on the pop radio stations, MP3 players, and at school dances. And we wonder why it's become acceptable and even in vogue to be called a "slut."
If we are to counter the culture's lie that our daughters are nothing more than objects, it's time to ban our children from buying and listening to songs that objectify women and take a stand when schools, and other cheer/dance organizations, allow the imitation of these objectifying dance moves. You might consider banning songs that fall into the rap/hip-hop genre or requiring preapproval. If a song comes onto the radio and lyrics clearly objectify women, turn it into a teachable moment before you change the station.
I highly suggest that parents block channels like MTV, VH1, and other like-minded cable channels that are known for their constant objectification of women. Additionally, sit in and listen to the shows your kids are watching to ensure they are appropriate, and take advantage of sites like pluggedin.com and www.screenit.com to review movies before allowing your children to see them. Also, the Parents Television Council (www.parentstv.org) rates the most popular shows among kids and compiles a "best and worst shows" list based on the content. They also have a fabulous feature where you can select a popular show and read the corresponding review.
When it comes to objectionable Web sites, I highly recommend that parents install Web filters and monitoring software to add as many layers of protection as possible. It will be impossible to protect them 100 percent of the time; and as they get older, they can access these channels/shows at friends' houses. This is why it is of utmost importance that parents take advantage of critical moments and point out the media's objectification of women as well as discuss the fallout that can result.
Whether it's popular clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch's screen-print tees with messages like "Who needs brains when you have these" or the 1.6 million dollars spent on thong underwear by girls aged seven to twelve, clearly we have a problem.3 Victoria's Secret now has a line aimed at tween, teen, and college girls. It used to be that you didn't set foot into Victoria's Secret until you had a ring on your finger. Nowadays girls as young as middle school are stopping in to pick up a birthday present for their best friend. Mercy, what happened?
As parents we must help our daughters realize that their clothing is like a label. When they wear skin-baring fashions, it often sends a message to others about their character. When we (parents) allow our daughters to dress in a revealing manner, we play a part in sexualizing and objectifying them. Not to mention, many girls are not yet able to make a connection between what they wear and the reaction it may generate among the opposite sex. The APA study found that "girls are experiencing teen pressures at younger and younger ages. However, they are not able to deal with these issues because their cognitive development is out of sync with their social, emotional and sexual development. Let girls be girls."4
In Shaunti Feldhahn's book For Young Women Only, she cited the results of a survey where guys were asked questions pertaining to the way girls dress. The study found that when girls dress in such a way as to call attention to their bodies, 85 percent of guys said that they would have a temptation to picture her naked (either then or later). The survey further confirmed that the majority of guys thought she was dressing that way because she wanted them to picture her that way. Her survey of girls found that in reality only less than 4 percent of girls dress in a revealing fashion in an attempt to get guys to fantasize about them.5
It is up to us to have this necessary conversation (over and over again) with our daughters and remind them that clothing sends a strong message; and it may, in fact, be a message that misrepresents who they really are. When it comes to sporting the perfect outfit, we need to let our daughters know that there is nothing wrong with dressing fashionably as long as it meets God's standard of dress — "modestly, with decency, and propriety" (1 Tim. 2:9).
While I don't watch (or endorse) Desperate Housewives, I've seen enough pictures of these women to know that they have all had Photoshop makeovers, ahem, not to mention, a few other costly makeovers as well. With slews of images like that, is it any wonder women of all ages are resorting to Botox injections, plastic surgery, and break-the-bank skin care regimes that promise to take ten years off their lives?
Sometimes the challenge seems insurmountable when it's everywhere we look. Redbook magazine was criticized for putting 39-year-old country music star Faith Hill on the July 2007 cover and photo-shopping the picture to lengthen her neck, slim her arms and thighs, trim her waist, and airbrush away her wrinkles. Redbook, for heaven's sake! My grandmother used to subscribe to Redbook because it wasn't considered a fashion magazine. In The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used against Women, author Naomi Wolf said, "Magazines, consciously or half-consciously, must project the attitude that looking one's age is bad because $650 million of their ad revenue comes from people who would go out of business if visible age looked good."6
How do we even begin to tackle this topic with our daughters and give them a more realistic picture of the natural aging process? How can we convince them that "gray hair is a crown of splendor" (Prov. 16:31) when many of us, myself included, are rushing to our hairdressers and paying them to cover it up, one gray hair at a time? Ouch! I for one am not feeling so led to give up my highlights, occasional manicures, and magical eye cream, so it's important to find a balance. Are you at peace, for the most part, with the aging process, or are you kicking and screaming about every gray hair and facial wrinkle?
We need to make sure our daughters realize that the images they are seeing in the media of models and celebrities who appear to have found the fountain of youth are not real. Most have been prepped for the photo session by hair and makeup artists, Botox, plastic surgery, and even after all that, will likely be airbrushed beyond recognition. We need to set a positive example for our daughters and make friends with the aging process. That doesn't mean we have to let our hair go gray and wear it in a tight bun atop our heads and fill our closets with holiday sweaters and Naturalizer footwear. There is nothing wrong with beautifying the temple as long as it's done in good taste and is not your primary focus. If our daughters are constantly subjected to our grumblings as we journey through the aging process, it will leave them with the impression that life is somehow less appealing in the latter years. Let's quit this nonsense of being shocked and surprised when our bodies begin to show some wear and tear. Some (if not many) of the most beautiful women I know are over fifty and put the polished and airbrushed models and celebs to shame. The over-forty cast of Desperate Housewives couldn't hold a candle to these women when it comes to true beauty. Will you be one of them
Mothers, did you know that only 2 percent of women would describe themselves as beautiful?1 Are you in that small sampling? Is your daughter in that small sampling? After discussing in depth the lies both we and our daughters have been told regarding the narrow definition of beauty, we are left with the task of redefining beauty. Only then can we pass along a healthy definition to our daughters.
What exactly is beauty? The Dove Campaign asked women and found that:
Interestingly, the study found that two-thirds of women strongly agree that physical attractiveness is about how one looks, whereas beauty includes much more of who a person is. Women rate happiness, confidence, dignity, and humor as powerful components of beauty, along with the more traditional attributes of physical appearance, body weight and shape, and even a sense of style.3
Now, stop for a minute and think about it. When you hear (or say) the phrase, "She is beautiful," is it made in reference to what is on the outside or the inside? I find it sad that popular culture and the mass media have hijacked the authentic definition of beauty. Beauty is defined by God and God alone. He sets the standard for beauty and gives us clues throughout Scripture as to what defines a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, the secular definition of beauty given by women in the Dove survey failed to recognize the key component that determines a woman's happiness, confidence, dignity, and humor. That key component, of course, is faith. Just as the Proverbs 31 passage concludes, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Prov. 31:30). Faith in a loving and forgiving God will be the root of any and all manifestations of beauty. Physical beauty will fade over time, but true beauty (virtue) is timeless.
As parents, that's where we come in. Only by pointing out the lies of culture and continually reminding our daughters of God's definition of beauty (virtue) will we stand a chance of protecting our daughters from the culture's inevitable brainwashing. We must be faithful in reminding them that beauty is not defined by a number on the scale, a premanufactured clothing size, an hourglass shape, washboard abs, slender thighs, big boobs, a J-Lo butt, pouty Angelina Jolie lips, a pair of designer low-rise jeans, a cleavage-baring top, a new sassy haircut, a clear complexion, an antiwrinkle cream, or a surgical procedure. While some of the above may garner catcalls from men, they don't impress God in the least.
If we are to engage successfully in the worthy conversation, "You are more than the sum of your parts" with our daughters, we must first do a self-check and make sure we believe it ourselves. For those of us who have been thoroughly brainwashed by the culture over the years, this will be a difficult challenge. And, I dare say, that would likely be the majority of women reading this book! In fact, while in the course of writing this book, I conducted an informal survey of adult women and asked, "Are you satisfied with your body/appearance?" Only a handful of the women answered yes to that question.
While I realize that many women struggle to achieve a healthy weight range and, therefore, may not be satisfied, I was even more concerned with the answers that followed on the next question. "If your weight fluctuates beyond your desired weight range, does it affect your overall happiness?" Even among the women who had previously answered that they were currently satisfied with their body/appearance, most admitted that should their weight fluctuate, like the others who answered the survey, it would impact their overall contentment/happiness. While I hope that this book will help you better engage in the necessary and ongoing conversation with your daughters regarding body image and appearance, I pray that the truths presented will aid you in breaking free from the culture's lies.
In a world that beckons our daughters to grow up far too fast, it's never too soon to begin the conversation with our daughters regarding true beauty in the eyes of God. In the next article I have compiled some key Scripture verses related to appearance and beauty and an example of how you might explain the meaning behind each verse to your daughter. Some are verses I have referenced in preceding chapters, but they bear repeating! Wouldn't it be nice if our girls grew up with the following verses tucked away in their hearts?
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
What it means: You are created in the image of God, and God doesn't make junk! Like a snowflake, every person is unique. No two are the same. God sees you as a masterpiece; and when you look in the mirror, He wants you to "know that full well." Try this beauty tip: Every morning when you look in the mirror, say Psalm 139:14 and smile. You might even tape the verse on your mirror as a reminder!
But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
What it means: The world focuses on what people look like on the outside. God focuses on what people look like on the inside. Do you put more time and effort into being pretty on the outside or the inside? As you get older, you will meet Christian girls who spend more time trying to find the perfect outfit, get the perfect tan, find the perfect lip gloss, and have the perfect body. While there's nothing wrong with wanting to look pretty, we need to make sure it's in balance. God would rather see us work on becoming drop-dead gorgeous on the inside. You know, the kind of girl who talks to Him on a regular basis (prayer) and reads her Bible.
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
What it means: Beauty fades with age, so if you are more concerned with your outer appearance, you will be unhappy when the wrinkles come and the number on the scale goes up. In fact, did you know that your body may show the beginning signs of aging as early as age twenty? That is why God wants us to "fear" Him. That doesn't mean to be afraid of Him but rather to be in awe of Him and all that He has done. Let me put it to you this way. If you stand two girls next to each other and one is Miss Teen USA whose beauty is limited to physical beauty, and the other young lady is a more average-looking girl who loves the Lord more than anything, she is the more beautiful girl in the eyes of God.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.
What it means: This does not mean it's wrong to braid your hair or wear nice clothes and jewelry. The verse was written to warn women not to follow the customs of some of the Egyptian women who, during that time period, spent hours and hours working on their hair, makeup, and finding the perfect outfit. God would rather see women work on becoming beautiful on the inside — the kind of beauty that lasts forever.
Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next.
What it means: Exercising and staying in shape is a good thing, but God expects us to stay in shape spiritually by reading our Bibles, praying, and going to church on a regular basis. In other words, there will be plenty of people who put their time and effort into staying in shape but who are out of shape spiritually. If they don't know Jesus Christ, their perfect bodies won't get them through the gates of heaven.
I would be willing to bet that most compliments paid to infants and toddlers are in regard to appearance. Of course, this is understandable considering we can't really highlight an infant's sparkling personality or good deeds accomplished. Chances are we heard, "What a beautiful baby," on numerous occasions when our daughters were just infants. And chances are, we have said it countless times to others. While our infants are unable to absorb the message, it won't be long before they do. My daughter, now eighteen, was often complimented as a baby for her blonde curls, blue eyes, fair skin, and teeny-tiny frame. She hardly looked old enough to walk when she took her first steps, and many claimed she looked like a little porcelain china doll. And trust me, by the age of two, she had taken note of each and every compliment.
The appearance-based compliments (from others and myself) continued through her toddler years. Until an occasion when she was four years old, I didn't realize there might be a downside to the praises. It was picture day at her preschool and I had dressed her up in a beautiful dress with a matching hair ribbon that held back her sweeping long blonde curls. As she was walking into the door of the classroom that morning, her teacher said, "Paige, you look so pretty!" Paige's response without even missing a beat was, "I know. Everyone tells me that."
Yikes! Of course, this was long before I was writing about the dangers of misdefined worth, not to mention I was hardly qualified since I was clearly part of the problem. From that day forward, I tried to emphasize her character qualities and de-emphasize her physical beauty. If she grew dependent on the compliments, what would become of her self-esteem when she entered the gawky, adolescent phase? You remember it, don't you? Pimples, bad hair days, and a body that often seemed out of control — truth be told, many of us are still in recovery from those days!
We must be careful to find a healthy balance when it comes to complimenting our child's appearance, especially in the early years. On the one hand, our girls naturally want to be told they are pretty. If we don't tell them, it could leave them craving male attention in the years to come. On the other hand, we don't want to go overboard and send a message that worth is based on what they look like. This, in turn, could set them up for disappointment when the compliments diminish over the years.
As your daughter moves through grade school, she will begin to absorb the culture's message regarding beauty. Whether she is being influenced primarily by the media or her friends, one thing is for certain: she is hearing a buzz about what constitutes beauty in the world's eyes. It will be especially important in these years to have open communication with your daughter regarding these messages. Take advantage of teachable moments, whether they are ads you come across or a comment made by a friend. Remind her of 1 Samuel 16:17 and how God looks at the heart while the world looks at appearance. Continue to remind her of this passage as she moves through grade school. If she struggles with weight, emphasize a healthy diet and exercise and make sure you are practicing it yourself. Rather than nag her about eating too many sweets or snacks, try to reduce the temptation by minimizing them in your home. Lead by example. Whatever you do, never shame her about weight, even jokingly.
If your daughter seems to be overly attentive in these years to appearance and body image issues, you might want to look closely at her immediate circle to see where the influence is coming from. Is it a friend? Is she exposed to messages in the media that she is too young to process? (For example, is she allowed to watch PG-13 movies, watch shows on TV or listen to music that supports a narrow and unrealistic definition of beauty?) Could you or your husband be focusing too much on appearance and sending her the wrong message? If you see warning signs, do what you can to reverse the damage, even if it means seeing a counselor or nutritionist. Many eating disorders take root in these years and, if not addressed, will only get worse.
Again, emphasize virtue and character qualities over appearance. This doesn't mean you go overboard and tell her appearance doesn't matter. The message should always be temple maintenance: healthy weight range, good eating habits, exercise, positive grooming habits. Because girls are developing earlier, your daughter will be exposed to many shapes and sizes during these years. It's important that you don't make comments about other girls (or your daughter) in these years that could leave them feeling inferior or worried about their own development process. As they move into the latter years of grammar school, begin necessary conversations with them about the process their body (and their friends' bodies) will go through as they move from girlhood to womanhood.
When I surveyed adult Christian women, one of the questions I asked them was: "What sort of message did you receive from your mom and/or dad regarding weight/body image when you were growing up?" Many women shared that even today they could still remember exact phrases and the sting they felt over comments made by their parents during their middle and high school years.
"Are you sure you want seconds?"
"Have you checked the calorie count in that cookie?"
"You might want to lay off the ______."
"You're never going to get a husband if you keep eating like that."
Comments such as the ones above, made even in jest, will have an impact on our daughters. Even if your daughter needs to lose weight, it's best if the pediatrician breaks the news rather than her hearing it in the form of constant nagging by a parent. And for the record, if the pediatrician isn't worried, you shouldn't be either. Again, a better approach would be to emphasize nutrition and exercise and lead by example. Practice it; don't preach it.
For most of our daughters, the change in body shape will be most drastic in the span of years from twelve to eighteen. Most girls will have their womanly shape by the time they graduate high school. Many girls are caught off guard in these years when their bodies transition (almost overnight, it seems) from girlhood to womanhood. We must make sure they know that this is normal and part of God's design to prepare them someday to bear children. Never assume that they will naturally absorb that truth by osmosis!
One thing I have made an effort to do with my own daughter is to educate her to the reality of her weight and shape changing over the years. While I have gained weight over the years, I am still in a healthy weight range so I point that out to her. I pray that as she witnesses my confidence, she will have a healthier attitude in the years to come. Even if you are not currently within a healthy weight range and are in the process of losing weight, you can still model a healthy attitude regarding weight and nutrition.
If your daughter is in the twelve to eighteen age range, make sure your comments related to appearance, weight, and body shape of your daughter (and others) are scarce. If you are preoccupied with these things, chances are, your daughter will be as well. Allow your daughter to hear you compliment women who are truly worthy of being labeled beautiful — those who are virtuous. Limit your daughter's exposure to the key offenders I mentioned [earlier]; and when she is exposed to lies, take advantage of teachable moments. Most importantly, keep the conversation going over the years and remind her often, "You are not the sum of your parts."