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We've always thought of childhood as a safe, happy time. But new research suggests that girls as young as seven-years-old are becoming obsessed with physical perfection. Why is that, and what can be done to protect our daughters?

Parents: Stop taking about weight and diets in front of your daughters 

Cease censuring yourself for what you eat. If you want a square of chocolate, you must stop saying, "I could go for a piece of chocolate, but..." Stop panicking about "clean eating" and instead focus on healthy, balanced eating, in which there is room for occasional treats and lot's of healthy activity.

Also, parents have to start showing their daughters they're valued for who they are, and not for how they look. Young girls believe that their looks are the most important thing about them. So don't go reinforcing that. Instead of praising them for being pretty, praise them for being talented, for being clever, for getting their brown-belt in karate, for their wonderful drawing, for their singing voice, for their mental agility with equations or their speed on the track.

Show them role models they can really look up to 

Not girls who marry rich husbands and stay ensconced in large houses, but women with real achievements. Here is what some girls told Girlguilding UK about their real role models:

[RE: Emma Watson] "She is fighting for equal rights for both men and women."

Girl aged 11 to 16, Girlguiding UK study

[RE: Adele] "Because she always is herself and doesn't take criticism."

Girl aged 11 to 16, Girlguiding UK study

[RE: Malala Yousafzai] "She is extremely brave and courageous and fights for what she believes in."

Girl aged 11 to 16, Girlguiding UK study

Show them the difference between the airbrushed image and the reality 

There are comparison images available. Helping your children to see the fantasy in the adverts (the eyelash inserts used to sell mascara, the airbrushing on magazine covers, and so on) can help them keep a sense of proportion. Dove made a great video (find it in links) called "The Evolution of Beauty", in which they take a normal woman and turn her into an airbrushed model. Show it to your child to help them understand how airbrushing works.

Never comment on anyone's body 

I don't care if you think the quip about the woman down the road's really funny. Never do it.

Finally, get your child to cook with you. Teach them to enjoy food (the feel of homemade crumble between the fingers, getting the stresses of the day out hammering a piece of steak into submission, arranging carrot slices into smiley-faces). And don't make food a battleground. If your child wants to go vegetarian, let them. If, one day, they decide they're not hungry and want dump their food after one potato and three green beans, don't sweat too much. Children are quick to exploit it if they know you panic over one missed meal.

Although developing a healthy attitude to their bodies, and to food, may take a long time, taking the pressure off our daughters now could pay dividends when they're grown-up, leading to more confident women who like themselves and know they can make a valuable contribution into the world.

And isn't that what we want for our daughters?

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