Am I Pretty?

In case you haven’t heard, a new trend has hit the ‘tween and teen set and it’s kind of heart- breaking. Scores of young, impressionable girls are posting youtubes of themselves begging to be told if they measure up in the looks department.

The angst they feel about their appearance is probably as old as time itself. Adolescents have always been concerned about how they look and have always secretly compared themselves to their peers. Given the fact that their bodies are going through a period of rapid change and development, it’s not too surprising.

During adolescence, growth is often asymmetrical, which means that one arm, leg or even side of their face may be a little longer or bigger than the other for a while. Teens often feel clumsy and awkward as they struggle to keep up with a body that just yesterday seemed, and might have been, different. Who among us didn’t believe that we were too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too everything when we were navigating those challenging years?

But today those concerns have become even more intense, especially for girls. Women have become obsessed with body image and appearance. And there is mounting evidence that our daughters are feeling the same pressure to be picture-perfect from grade school on.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who wrote The Body Project, a study that looked at the history of American girlhood, found that 50 years ago, when girls were given a questionnaire asking them about efforts at “self-improvement” they talked about how they could improve their academic performance or contribute more to their communities. When that same questionnaire was recently redistributed the answers all focused on how they could improve their personal appearance. It seems that today’s girls grow up believing that “good looks,” rather than “good works,” are needed in order to be a successful and beloved woman.

Reaching out for support during this tumultuous time is natural and understandable. These girls are trying to quell their gut-wrenching anxiety about their appearance. But clearly, the internet is not the place to find it. Their pleas for a straight and honest answer to their question have often been met with ridicule and contempt.

The “help” they have received has caused everything from hurt feelings to suicide. Equally troubling is that the desperate pleas for support make these already vulnerable kids sitting ducks for predators, who search out youngsters who appear insecure or lonely. They swoop in with kind words of encouragement and thereby begin the process of making them feel special and gaining their trust.

However you look at it, this is a trend that we must bring into the open with our girls and stop. But how? There is actually a lot you can do to help your child weather the inevitable storms of adolescence with her self-esteem intact.

  • Explain that worrying about her appearance is normal during adolescence but posting online to get reassurance is not a healthy or productive way to deal with it. Talk about the risks and don’t be shy about laying them out.
  • Ask your teen how she sees herself. Let her air her concerns and listen sympathetically, but then shift the conversation away from traits that are physical and transitory like looks, to those that speak to character and can be nurtured and developed.
  • Help her to place her emphasis on being healthy and fit (rather than skinny and glamorous) and on developing her own unique style.
  • Watch your own obsession with weight and appearance. Model attitudes and behaviors that you want to see in her.
  • Remember that all teens need to to be affirmed regularly. Even though they might be driving you nuts, you need to take the time to compliment them on their appearance, behavior, attitude, and talents. Be authentic and don’t gush. Your words go in much deeper than you may believe. Instead of saying “You are the prettiest or smartest,” aim for pointing out something about her that is unique and beautiful like:

“That’s a great hair style! How did you do that?” Or…

“What a beautiful drawing. I love how you were able to capture the feeling of winter.” Or…

“It was so kind of you to help your little brother with his homework. What a thoughtful person you are.” Or…

“I can’t believe that you can play the guitar like that. You have real talent! I wish I could do that.” Or…

“Thanks so much for pitching in so nicely tonight with the dishes. I love to see that helpful attitude of yours.”

  • Spend fun, adventurous all-girl time with her and some friends of varying ages. Camp, hike, knit, or bake together and make it a habit. Girls thrive when given the opportunity to explore different parts of themselves and their personalities in a safe, all-female environment.
  • Make sure that you try your best to keep up with what’s going on between her and her computer. Limit the amount of time she spends on it. A lot of this online posting goes on late at night when kids are supposed to be asleep and their anxieties are running high. You might even consider having all kid-owned electronics deposited in your room when lights go out. Just a thought…



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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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