A little girl challenging notions of beauty and body image

By: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

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Snapshot of Sleeping Beauty from a book of classic fairy tales. (Click to enlarge)
Photo: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

Look at the picture on the right. This is a snapshot from the only fairytale book I bought my five-year old daughter. I bought it, because even though I dislike the prince-rescues-princess gender stereotype, I wanted fairytales to be a part of my daughter’s childhood.

After all, raising kids is all about raising well-balanced individuals. So I thought my gender-neutral style of parenting should also have some fairytales thrown in. I can’t keep my kids under my cloak forever, they are going to see and absorb from the outside full-of-gender-stereotypes world. The challenge is to train them to recognize a stereotype and learn to question it and not get touched by it.

But the challenge is double-fold when it comes to our little girls.

Any parent can relate how demanding it is to raise a young girl in today’s media saturated world – a world where ill-conceived notions of a woman’s body image are plastered on every wall.

A lot of noise is being made challenging these so-called notions of beauty, whose real face is the horror of bulimia, starvation and editing software. I salute the men and women who are challenging the corporate structures and their media campaigns selling unachievable notions of beauty and sexist products to our young girls.

Thanks to companies like Toward the Stars for making gender-neutral products to counter stereotypes. (I just ordered a batch of books about real kids in real world).

But it doesn’t stop at books. As a mother of a girl under six, I am already forced to have a talk with my innocent girl on the concept of beauty and fashion. I don’t paint the world of fashion and glamour as evil. For I don’t think it is. Wearing nice clothes, personal grooming, a touch of make up does wonder for your outer self but the challenge is how to keep it limited to the outer self. When it seeps into the inner being, it corrodes the Self and makes it too dependent on the outer identity. And when the outer identity collapses, young girls collapse with it.

In our little world of mother-daughter talks, I tell her that make up doesn’t define a woman; it is just to brush up a little for an event, occasion or a party. Like dress up. If you choose not to, that doesn’t mean you are not worthy of being at that event.

I try and reinforce that every image and product she sees on screen is not necessarily the real face of it. I tell her, we need to research to find out the truth. It’s a fun exercise! Like the time, she wanted a doll that had a disproportionate body size. We went online and looked at the scientific diagrams outlining human anatomy. Then we examined the dolls’ proportions and if those could hold the internal organs. She was ecstatic on her “scientific discovery” that the doll was a case of bad craftsmanship.

I try and teach her real beauty is the inner beauty. But how do you get this abstract concept to a little girl? I try by associating the following actions:

–       For a glowing skin: an act of kindness, especially being nice to the younger sibling and friends.

–       For a pretty face: hugs, lots of family hugs especially when feeling the grumps.

–       For beautiful lips: a big smile

I am sharing this to tell you that this approach works. How? Back to the picture I posted above. She was flipping pages of this book when she came to this picture of Sleeping Beauty. She paused and looked hard at the picture and then pointed out with pride:

“Mom, look, she has such a thin neck while the prince doesn’t.”

I looked at the horrifyingly thin neck of the princess that immediately filled me with revulsion. It is one thing to reinforce a gender stereotype through this kind of story, but another to put incorrect notions of body image in the same story targeted for kids under six. The book is definitely going in the recycling box (why would I give it to someone) but I am proud of my little girl for challenging the wrong notions of body image. It was a great moment for both of us. In her words:

“They did such a bad job!”

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Categories: Gender Equality, Parenting

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. As always, an excellent read Anu! I have the same struggles daily with my daughter, and it can be so hard to explain stereotyping to her because I work in fashion. To counteract all the days she sees me all dolled up I recently created a policy of makeup free weekends. Unless we are going out somewhere special, no makeup at the grocery store, for errands, or family time for me. I want her to realize makeup is just something I like and wear for my job – it doesn’t define me.
    It has also been a bit of a lesson for me – getting comfortable in my own skin!

  2. Your daughter is such a switched on 6-year-old when it comes to critical thinking about these sterotypes, Anu. Great job, and thanks for sharing your methods with other parents. my own kids are in their 20s, and it’s interesting to hear how they view sterotypes in the world around them. Happily, they’ve developed a critical eye as well, and those conversations can be a real joy!

  3. You have a very intelligent six-year old. My daughter is only 21- months but I definitely want her to become her own woman one day. Thanks for the great post.

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