"What do you think pretty is?" This was the question a teacher at my daughter's school asked during a PSHE lesson last week. The responses from the group of 13 year olds were varied but the one that provoked the greatest reaction was "Blonde hair, clear skin, a thigh gap and a flat stomach!"
The debate that ensued around this one girl's interpretation of "pretty" was lively according to my daughter who on hearing the description felt affronted. Firstly she is a redhead not a blonde and secondly she has battled with bouts of acne so always feels self conscious of her not so "clear skin" so a small part of her took this definition of "pretty" to heart and felt personally offended. On a more general level she found her fellow classmate's description shallow at best, which of course all led to a lively debate over dinner that night as she challenged the perception of Barbie doll beauty as she called it.
"Pretty" is not a word you hear used very often nowadays but according to the Oxford Dictionary means "attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful". What is truly beautiful anyway? For me I have always relied upon the old adage that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Every person is unique and beautiful in their own way and surely real beauty is more than skin deep. I tell my daughter she is beautiful everyday because to me she is, but more so because she is inquisitive, clever, sensitive, thoughtful, hysterically funny and generous - I could go on....
The sad thing is that the pressure amongst teenage girls to pursue an idealised vision of pretty and to look and be a certain way is omnipresent. My daughter is not overly hung up on her looks at the moment and would rather head off to browse the shelves in our local bookstore on a Saturday afternoon than the cosmetics counter at Superdrug. But this is now, who knows what the future holds.
Apart from the peer pressure of being amidst girls that place such a value on the way they look there is also the indirect pressure exerted by the media to look a certain way, all of which combine to create a cauldron of issues surrounding body image for our young girls to navigate.
Last year there was a big media storm over the London Underground poster "Are you beach body ready?" as everyone castigated the advertiser's use of a genetically blessed young girl with the seemingly perfect bikini body.
Originally a poster for Protein World, there was a huge public outcry as the poster promoting weight loss came under fire from some feminists and body image campaigners who branded it body-shaming. Who were Protein World to decide what the perfect beach body was and why was a thin body a prerequisite for going to the beach anyway? Amidst the general furore an internet prankster hit back with its own version of the poster featuring three curvaceous women and the caption "Yes. We are beach body ready."
From a marketing perspective the campaign was heralded a huge success. Not only had it captivated attention on an extensive scale, but it had also provoked a response and as such was described by Marketing magazine as "one of the most effective and innovative pieces of brand marketing in living memory".
It is exactly these kind of messages, however, that can be so easily misconstrued by our young girls at an age when they are just learning to be comfortable with themselves and their bodies. Just as one person's perception of "pretty" is different from another's, so one person's understanding of these kind of messages can differ to another's too. Take the image of the girl out of the Protein World poster and then the question becomes less offensive and thus less provocative. Don't we all ask ourselves if we are ready for the beach every year whether we are a Size 0 or a Size 20?
Blonde, clear skin, a thigh gap and a flat stomach may be one person's ideal "pretty" body image but not another's, but sadly some will always strive for that idealised vision accentuated by clever marketing campaigns. We know of one family whose world has been turned upside down in the last few months as their 13 year old started dieting with a group of friends to get herself bikini ready for the summer holiday. Devastatingly it all went too far and she returned to school after the summer transformed and battling anorexia. After an extensive period in hospital she has returned to school, but not without consequences. She cannot do any exercise and must eat frequently and at regular intervals under supervision. She cannot concentrate for long periods and is easily tired. The impact upon hers and her family's life is truly heartbreaking.
It is normal for teenagers to be conscious of their bodies and want to look great and lead a healthy lifestyle and I have written about this previously in relation to teenage boys, but there is a fine line between a positive and negative body image and the latter comes with anxiety and in some circumstances unfortunate consequences. I am glad that schools encourage children to discuss these issues openly amongst themselves as it is only through conversation and debate that these unhealthy "pretty" perceptions can be challenged.
So what's a parent to do? Well in a world where so much emphasis is placed upon the way we look, it is not surprising body image issues are rife among young adolescents and as parents I think we need to guide our young girls and boys through the madness and ensure they maintain a sensible and healthy perspective on their looks.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.