MissRepresentation.org has put out some statistics about teenage girls’ relationships to their bodies that are quite frightening. A few that jumped out at me: 53% of 13-year-old-girls are unhappy with their bodies, and by age 17, that number reaches 78%. These numbers may not be surprising to anyone who has ever been or known a teenage girl; self-esteem and adolescence go together like glaciers and greenhouse gases. Here’s a statistic that may surprise you, though, and maybe even appall you: 80% of 10-year-old girls reported having been on a diet.
I take numbers with a grain of salt (no pun intended), and so I looked up the current childhood obesity numbers. Could it be (I wondered, but never believed) that these young girls dieted because that was the healthiest choice for them? According to the CDC, childhood obesity rates have reached a troubling 17%. So yes, there are children in this country that probably should be trying to lose weight with the help of a doctor and their parents. (Of course, such a prescription assumes that these children don’t live in food deserts, that their parents can afford to take them to a doctor, that their families can afford healthier food, and that someone has time to prepare it … etc.) Having acknowledged the very real problem of obesity in this country and a few of its socioeconomic causes, I return to my original point: there are children in this country that probably should be trying to lose weight, but not this many. Not 80% of preteen girls.
Some of the other numbers in this study provide a hypothesis for why so many young girls are unhappy with the way they look: 48% of girls wish they were as thin as models, while three out of four teenage girls “feel depressed, guilty, and shameful after spending three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.” Correlation doesn’t imply causality, but it’s not hard to see that dangerously thin models and actresses create unrealistic ideas of how it’s normal for girls to look. The website TvTropes coined the phrase “Dawson Casting” to describe television shows who cast actors and actresses in their young twenties to play teenagers; anyone a teen sees on television or film who is meant to portray a teen, will in actuality have outgrown their awkward years. I had braces when I was 10, which is hardly unusual, but when was the last time you saw a character with braces in a show that didn’t use them as a defining character trait or the punchline of a joke?
It would help if preteen girls saw realistic images of beauty in magazines or on movie screens, but convincing girls that they’re beautiful is only half of the solution to the problem of female self-esteem. This may be a trite conclusion, but we’re so much more than a number on a scale, and we need a culture that recognizes that.