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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?

Our little girls are in crisis.

A recent (2016) study by Girlguiding UK revealed that 36% of girls age seven- to ten-years-old believe how they look is most important, valued above brains or personality.

23% of girls this age feel that they have to be perfect, with 15% of girls aged seven- to ten-years old feeling embarrassed by their appearance most or all of the time. 69% of girls, as young as seven, feel that they're not good enough.

These are heart-breaking statistics.

But what do they mean?

What does perfection mean to a seven year old girl?

17% of seven- to ten-year-old girls think they need to lose weight most of the time, and 23% think they need to lose weight sometimes. With girls aged eleven- to sixteen-years, the figure rises to 51% of girls thinking they're overweight most of the time.

15% of seven- to ten-year-old girls think they need to be prettier most of the time, and 23% think they're not pretty enough sometimes. 54% of girls aged eleven- to sixteen-years think they're not pretty enough most of the time.

According to our daughters:

- 36% of girls aged seven- to ten-years agree that how they look is the most important thing about them. 53% of girls aged eleven to 21 agree.

- 35% of girls aged seven- to ten-years agree that women are judged on appearance rather than ability. 75% of girls aged eleven to 21 agree.

- 42% of girls aged eleven to 21 years agree that a woman has to be pretty to be successful.

So, there we have it. A perfect girl, in the eyes of our children, is pretty and thin.

But Does it Really Matter?

It does.

Young girls are less happy with their appearance than ever before.

When Girlguiding UK did their last study, in 2011, it found that 73% of girls age seven to 21 were happy overall with how they look. Now, that figure has dropped to 61%. These figures coincide with official figures, revealing that 200 British children aged five to nine have been hospitalised for Anorexia Nervosa. Ofsted also shows that one-third of ten-year-old girls and 22% of ten-year-old boys are on an official diet.

These figures are significant because they are indicative of low-self-esteem, a key cause of depression. An NHS study recently showed that young women aged 16 to 24 years old are at the highest risk of anxiety and depression. The Girlguiding UK study showed that 28% of girls aged seven to ten, and 48% of girls aged eleven to sixteen already feel anxious often.

Seven-year-old girls no longer want to climb trees or ride ponies. Instead, in a reflection of their worryingly adult preoccupations, their favourite game is to try make-up looks and rate each other on who is "hottest".

Similarly, as Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland found out, girls of nine, when asked what they want to be when they grow-up, reply - not with a profession - but "skinny" or "hot".

Even nursery age children, as young as four, are saying that they "can't wear leggings". When asked why, they say their legs are too fat.

Why and The Future: What Can We Do for Our Young Girls

Why are Young Girls so Obsessed?

There are several reasons.

Our daughters are being more exposed to media than before, with the average child watching 40,000 adverts every single year. The narrow, and often airbrushed, images of beauty presented in the media press an unrealistic standard onto young and impressionable girls, who can't discriminate between reality and the airbrushed made-up fantasy placed before them.

The study by Girlguiding UK showed that 37% of girls aged eleven to 21 compared themselves to celebrities most of the time or often. A further 29% compare themselves to celebrities sometimes.

Children's movies and TV can be just as bad. A study by the Journal of Children and Media found that of the girls, aged between ten and seventeen, who are featured on the popular children's channels Nickelodeon and Disney, 87% are underweight. The children who are heavier generally play unattractive, unpopular characters who are the butt of jokes.

We are also being exposed to more social pressure than ever before. Since the 1920s, when people started swallowing tapeworms and cigarettes were advertised with images of smiling flappers and the slogan "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet", being overweight has been increasingly seen as a disease. This has become even more prevalent over the last couple of decades. What may have previously been dismissed by fond relatives as "puppy fat" is noted on charts and at school weigh-ins. The child with a normal, tiny tummy is made to feel like a blue whale.

The Girlguiding UK study showed that 25% of girls aged seven to ten, and 61% of girls aged eleven to sixteen, had had someone criticise their body.

Schools can accidentally worsen the problem with their focus on healthy eating. Children may misunderstand messages about healthy eating and take them to extremes. After a classroom lesson on the dangers of obesity, one nine-year-old boy became obsessed about the fat content in his packed lunch. Another child began hiding his lunch in his bag, which his mother only discovered when the bag started to stink.

Finally, parents and other adults can accidentally reinforce dangerous a body perception. Every time a mother says, in front of her child, that she's fat, or refuses dessert because she's dieting, she reinforces the message into her daughter's head that that's a healthy, normal way to be.

Other adults can also teach children that thinness is normal and desirable. Hannah Betts, a writer for the Telegraph, (always a normal weight before) was very underweight after a prolonged illness, losing four stone. She began getting a lot of compliments, telling her how "good" she looked, and that she should "keep it up". She says of that time:

"My unpadded bottom hurt when I sat...Merely lying down was painful."

However, children don't feel this reality. They only hear the compliments, see the approving sweep of the eyes, and hear the muttered complaints from their mothers that they can't "shift that last pound". These distorted perceptions gradually seep into our children's consciousness, and become all they know.

What Do Young Girls Want?

"[Stop] judging girls on their bodies and making them feel bad about themselves."

Girl aged seven to ten, Girlguiding UK Study

54% of young girls (aged seven- to ten-years-old) would like people to stop judging girls based on their bodies and appearance.  

What Can We Do For 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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