'Beauty sickness': How much emphasis on looks is too much?

How to teach youth to love themselves in age of social media

From Youtube makeup tutorials to selfies and everything in-between, the world of beauty is getting larger and more accessible with social media.

But how much emphasis on looks is too much? Especially when children and teens consume this type of content every single day.

Is 'beauty sickness' to blame? It's a term coined by Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University. She says beauty sickness is "the chronic focus on beauty that directs cognitive, financial, and emotional resources away from other more important goals."

For many children and teens, image is much more prevalent in today's world than ever before.

According to Common Sense Media, tweens spend an average of nine hours a day using all forms of media, when you break it down, 57 percent “Enjoy social networking ‘a lot,’ averaging 1:43 a day using social media. Tend to own smartphones (60 percent). Mostly girls (70 percent)."

"She is very aware of her image at this age,” Garrett Dollar says of his five-year-old daughter, Cadence. "Kids are taking pictures every day multiple times a day.” 

The Round Rock father says he knows exactly what to do before the flash goes off, she also practices posing and smiling.

And although Cadence doesn't have access to popular apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, she's already feeling the pressure to look a certain way, sometimes coming down to the clothes her father buys her.

"We got her this big puffy winter coat to keep her warm so one day I told her, 'let’s put on your puffy jacket,' and she was like, 'no I don't like that jacket it makes me look fat.' And I was like, 'really?' And that's a thought I don't want in my five-year-old's head,” he said.

"It's happening younger and younger,” Caroline Crawford, program director of Girls Empowerment Network.

She believes these ideas are hard to run away from when social media is saturated with high beauty standards and "likes" being the validation of self-worth.

"And so they are craving just one more, just one more like so they can feel lifted up and more confident," Crawford said.

Take it from 17-year-old Tatum Lopez, she thinks the kind of content she sees online can sometimes be overwhelming.

"For girls, we might be sometimes bullied because of the way we look or the way we dress,” Lopez said.

One way to work around that? Change the environment.

"What I want parents to hear is that it is up to you and the village that you bring to create the narrative for your daughter,” Crawford said.

Meaning, be the example, show that hard work and kindness trumps how you look on the outside.

"I think it's very important for a parent to reinforce their child in positive ways other than talking about
their beauty,” Dollar added.

“They can talk to their girls about what beauty is, and that beauty isn't just defined by your body,” Crawford said. “But maybe your beauty is your listening skills---or your intellect, or your athletic abilities, or your hard working perseverance, your leadership, your compassion. There are so many ways that we can define beauty and parents have all the strength and all the power to do that for their girls.”

For Lopez, it’s what she was taught from the start.

"My parents taught me to love the way that I am, and I shouldn't follow those (other) things,” Lopez said.

Crawford offers key things parents can do:

  • Be a role model, lead by example.
  • Find other ways to reinforce positive messages other than commenting on their looks, telling them they are brave, smart or kind goes a long way.
  • Find out what their meaning of beauty is, help them filter out what's real and not real.

Dr. Renee Engeln says limiting the amount of exposure to certain content is also a helpful way to build confidence and feel comfortable in your own skin.

clubGEN is an after school program for girls in grades 3-8. At clubGEN, girls are surrounded with positive role models they can relate to for connection, inspiration, and guidance.

For more information about Girls Empowerment Network, click here

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