Our little Ophelias

A few weeks back, my friend Christine posted an excerpt from an L.A. Times article that included a bunch of statistics released by the YWCA concerning women and girls and issues of image, beauty and societal pressure. I remember reading it and being sobered by the pervasive acceptance of plastic surgery as well as by the dollar amounts being shelled out regularly by women to the “beauty” industry. Skimming a recent issue of RealSimple, I was amazed at a section where they profiled a single woman’s monthly budget: hundreds of dollars each month were allocated for “grooming”.

But none of this hit me in a real gut way until a couple of days ago when, for the first time ever, Mercy talked about someone being “fat”. And suddenly, that statistic that I had merely glanced over about eating disorders now beginning in kindergarten made me sick. And scared.

I remember reading “Reviving Ophelia” while on bed-rest last year, and it was staggering to read the stories of how treacherous the journey from childhood to adolescence has become for girls. And that book was written in the 90s (I think).

Like many parents, I am appalled by much of what passes as “children’s” clothing for girls. And just last night, standing in an endless, not-moving line at our newly remodeled Ralph’s, I was scanning the array of celebnews in front of me and realized: wow, we now have paparazzi and magazine coverage of the wardrobes and playrooms of infants and toddlers. Amazing.

Two weeks ago, Mercy turned to me and asked: “Mom, what does pop-ley-er mean?”

As hard as infancy and toddlerhood X3 have felt at times, perhaps the greatest challenges, as many have warned me, are yet to be felt.

From the article mentioned above:

“Eighty percent of women say they’re unhappy with their appearance”

“69% of the respondents (18 and older) said they were in favor of plastic surgery”

“Americans fork over nearly $7 billion a year to cosmetics, beauty supply and perfume stores, and nearly 11.7 million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed — an almost 500% increase in such procedures from 1997.”

“if women put the average amount of money they spent on monthly manicure-pedicures ($50) into an interest-bearing retirement account every year for 10 years, they would have almost $10,000 saved.”

“With the media playing a larger role in our daily lives, young girls are more susceptible to low self-esteem — based on beauty ideals — than ever before and are subject to greater harassment.”

I would love to hear thoughts from other parents who have already journeyed some through these waters…


  1. It’s really hard…

    Of course, if you want your daughter not to listen to and participate in this #$&*#$ then you won’t do it yourself.

    I do a lot of talking back to the TV, radio and newstand, in front of our daughters, and have encouraged them from an early age to do the same for themselves.

    We listen to a lot of classical music, or anything which isn’t pop/media darling of the moment.

    We do most of our clothes shopping at thrift stores.

    We praise our daughters for their minds, and hearts, and strength and spirit, not their looks. We invite them into meaningful discussions, and discourage “talking like an airhead.” We do the same thing with their friends, when they are around.

    We send/sent our daughters to IHS and encourage/d them to have a more global understanding of humanity, in addition to a biblical one. It’s hard to justify expensive cosmetics and clothes when you are aware of women whose feet are tough and dirty from trudging miles just for water to drink, or who are watching their children die before their (unmascara-ed) eyes.

    Maybe most important of all, my husband and I model to them what a committed Christian marriage looks like. They have the precious gift of a faithful father who loves his wife, and who adores them. He has been a constant, supportive presence in our lives, reinforcing the message that what counts most is not our appearance, but what lies within us.

  2. Excellent and terrifying post.

    This summarizes well my trepidation at having girls (two boys thus far), but it is also a challenge to teach my young men to seek real beauty. Ultimately, I think Beth is right. You model it, and engage their minds to dialog with the messages they receive from media.

    I am happy that there are so many other intentional parents who are a few steps ahead. What a valuable resource community is!

  3. Thank you Beth for your insight and willingness to share from your own experience. I love your last part, too, about the model of your own marriage and the example of your husband. That has to be an important part of all of this; maybe the most important?

    One follow-up question I would have is this: do you ever speak to your girls about physical beauty? I think my daughter is beautiful and I tell her that. When I read your comment about praising everything but physical appearance, I was interested to know if you never speak of their physical beauty?

  4. ‘All in’ on this post and the comments.

    Daughters are wonderful.

    In my mind, no need to withhold praise for physical beauty.

    Just gotta do a better job of giving praise and valuing the many other gifts God gives.

    It’s skewed right now toward the physical for women–in spite of all the progress that’s been made–so I understand why somebody who gets it might feel angry about a city that has so popularized an emphasis on noses and boobs :^).

    Sarah Palin is the latest example of what a nice face and rack can do for you :^)

  5. Oh dear, sorry, I overstated that. I didn’t mean to give the impression that we don’t give our girls physical compliments!

    On the contrary, I frequently tell them they are beautiful, but I keep it honest and real. Susan’s glory is her thick, chestnut hair, and she has small, delicate hands which belie incredible strength. I celebrate those gifts whenever I can.

    Joanna’s beauty lies in her height, and her slender, gazelle-like legs, which enable her to fly down the ultimate field with speed and grace. We sometimes sit side by side, and I marvel at how much longer her legs are now than mine, recalling the day she was born, and how she was so long they had to call for a measuring tape because she spilled off the table.

    My mother had Alzheimer’s. I spent enough time in the nursing home with her to realize the truth of Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy cheeks and lips within his bending sickle’s compass come, Love alters not with brief hours and weeks, but bears it out, even to the edge of doom.” But even in the midst of the hell of her dementia, her eyes were like clear blue pools…

  6. Erica,

    Great post, as always, have been visiting for a while, but wanted to comment because I read “Reviving Ophelia” back in the 90’s when my girls were little – the book scared me back then! At the time I didn’t want to acknowledge the ways that culture influences our young women.

    Now my girls are 19 and 16 and I pray that as they step out into the world on their own they will be confident and able to critique the messages that assault them from every side.

    Since they were little girls we have made it a point to not only compliment them, but critique our cultural views on beauty and popularity. I have also found the biggest challenge has been to nurture their intellectual achievement, because smart girls are often looked down on by their peers.

    Sadly, this really becomes an issue around 4th grade when girls are just not nice to each other. Not sure how to change that social problem – but it is huge!

    Thanks again for the post…


  7. I like to think I am pretty conscious of the challenges facing young girls, and hope to do a lot of the things suggested here with the little girl I am now carrying (due in Oct!). However, I was recently thumbing through a magazine article (I’m sorry, I don’t remember the magazine)in my OB’s office and read this statistic: more than half of women in this country would rather be hit by a truck than be overweight. Hit. By. A. Truck. And don’t get me started on the fact that our local Target has a lingerie section in their Girls department – silky pjs and padded bras and everything. I can’t tell you how scared I am.

  8. Amber,

    I am stunned by that statistic. Can that possibly be true??? Maybe we will have the privilege of raising the “backlash” generation that can turn these trends upside down.

    And I’m with you on the lingerie comment. The thing that kills me is that thong underwear is like standard junior high clothing now! And spa treatments once reserved for grown women are the norm for high schoolers now. It really does seem crazy.

  9. I agree with others that girls needed to be valued in their three dimensions: body, mind and spirit. Not only how much time are we spending on appearance but how much time on developing our thoughtfulness, breadth of experience, depth of soul.

    Often I feel in a bind on the beauty issue: my 17 yo eats a lot of junk food. She’s not heavy now because she’s active, but her diet is not good. I feel as if I am walking on eggshells: I don’t want her to develop an eating disorder or to convey to her any anxiety about weight but I would like her to eat a healthier diet for all the obvious reasons that one does when a loved when is eating bags of potato chips and giant candybars. I talk to her about healthy eating at neutral times and buy fruits and veggies and then bite my tongue as she orders big gulp sodas, etc. Any ideas? Am I being too controlling (at least in my mind)?

  10. @Diane:
    The best (and only truly effective) way to encourage healthy habits is to model them. By buying fruits and veggies instead of big-macs, you are already doing this. Exercising together, either running around the park, or planning family hiking trips, or bicycling, or swimming together, will also help. Celebrate the gift of health and activity as a family! Teenagers may not appear to be following these lessons, but they will come back later on.

    I come from a family where my parents encouraged healthy eating and healthy exercise from when I was very small. My sisters and I still developed eating disorders in high school. You can’t prevent it from happening, sometimes. BUT, the foundation my parents gave me as a child helped me to recover later on. Do not feel that you are failing, even if it looks like what you are doing isn’t helping. It will help, either now or later.

  11. There are many things about the beauty industry that frighten me and anger me. The message that you just aren’t pretty enough unless you buy this or that product is ridiculous. The use of computers to make models look un-humanly perfect in magazines is beyond frustrating. Because even when we know that they’ve been airbrushed, it still sinks in to our hearts that we ought to look like that.

    However, women have been bonding together to accentuate their beauty since Old Testament times. The Bible says our beauty comes FROM the inside, not what we do to the outside. But I think the issue here is not what we do (though I do feel plastic surgery is going way too far), but the motivation for it. There is a big difference between “I look fat and ugly, so I have to exercise” and “I want to be a good steward of my body and feel more beautiful, so I’m going to choose to exercise”.

    My mother always told me I was beautiful. But we also went to the Lancome counter together, and those are special memories for me. She also told me that I didn’t NEED makeup. But it was so fun to make ourselves more beautiful, learn new tricks, and spoil ourselves with new makeup. 🙂 It’s something we continue to do now that I’m an adult. In actuality, we have very little in common. But as women, something we all have in common is the innate desire to celebrate, accentuate, and create beauty.
    God reveals His beauty in us. I think we were created to reflect His character in this way. For example… He created a perfectly beautiful sky. It doesn’t NEED anything to be nice to look at. Yet, He makes every sunset a little different. And sometimes with shockingly different colors that cause us to look in awe. I think that’s part of what we reflect when get a manicure, buy new makeup, get some satin pajamas, etc.

    I believe there is a way to enjoy this expression together as women, including mothers and daughters, without instilling an “unreachable ideal” or communicating that it is necessary in order to be loved and accepted.

    I like the ideas mentioned about affirming character attributes in your children and talking back to the bad media messages as part of training them to confident and secure.

    I believe that the best protection against eating disorders and self image problems is this:

    A daddy that delights in his daughter, listens to her stories, takes joy in her passions, accepts her for who she is, looks for the awesome beauty of God in all her drawing/singing/twirling/talking/etc., and most of all… pursues his daughter’s heart and continues to do so until the day he gives her away to a worthy man who will do the same.

    Men, don’t be so intimidated by your daughters! You know how to woo a woman! Your wife married you, didn’t she? This little lady is probably a lot like her mom! Take her out to her favorite restaurant, bring her flowers, tell her she’s beautiful, sing her a song, tell her how much you love her, be fierce in protecting her, ask her opinion, and admire her skills. Most importantly, treasure each moment. All too soon there will be another man who will take your place in doing these things. And if you miss too many moments between now and then, her standards for choosing that man may reflect that.

  12. Holly,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here (and I echo Jelani’s sentiments 🙂 ).

    Many friends who developed eating disorders have shared with me how their onset coincided with very early sexual encounters or dynamics with boys where they were pretty desperate for male affirmation and went after that in unhealthy ways. So the role of Dad is huge in how a girl develops her sense of identity and who she turns for those affirmation needs.

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