Friday, November 27, 2009

Body Image in Little Girls

Body image seems like an appropriate topic to me, while I'm writing about Helen, the most beautiful of all women in mythology. Apparently a new study shows that an alarming number of girls between the ages of 3 and 6 are worried about being fat-- 49% seem to worry either sometimes, or almost always.

Forty-nine percent seems like kind of an alarming statistic to me. But there's a silver lining, I guess. Those feelings of concern about being fat, and body image, AREN'T influenced by animated movies like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, with the idealized princess beauty and the tiny waists.

So what does all this mean? I think it tells us something we are already well aware of--children are more than capable of differentiating between real and imaginary. They can look at animated drawings and renderings and say "that isn't what people look like." This brings us right back to the old argument over Barbie dolls, too. Barbie has unrealistic proportions. If Barbie were a real person, she wouldn't be able to walk. But what if that very unrealistic image is the reason that children have no trouble playing with those dolls? The proportions are so obviously wrong that it divorces the doll from reality altogether-- just like Belle's overly large eyes, tiny waist, and animation (to say nothing of the monstrous beast she's held prisoner by) keep her from becoming an example of what a girl should look like.

Media representation of the ideal is of course still an issue. Women who are as thin as models make up an extraordinarily low percentage of people on the earth-- but because we see them everywhere on television and in magazines, we're tricked into believing that it's more "normal." The problem with models, is that they're people. Real live, breathing people, not imaginary princesses or obscenely busty dolls. But it isn't just the media that's perpetuating this myth of idealized beauty and the compulsion to change to fit it. All you have to do is walk into any woman's bathroom at home to see the cosmetics lining the shelves, or take a walk through your favorite drug store to see all the many products that women bring home. Adult women. Mothers of impressionable children. And don't get me started on tanning...

We buy pounds and pounds of makeup and gallons of hair dye to make ourselves "pretty enough." To feel better about our body image. And if you think that kids aren't watching that, aren't witnessing that, aren't paying attention to every comment their mother, sister, cousin, aunt, or grandmother is making about how they don't like the way they look, or how they wish they were skinnier, then we're deluding ourselves.

So what do I think about this body image study? And the results? I think it's less about the cartoons and more about real life. And good body image for children starts with Mom, and Big Sis, not with the imaginary characters in animated cartoons, or the totally fake-looking Barbie dolls.

As for Helen, I suspect that after Leda's rape by Zeus, she heard all about the burden of being beautiful from her mother--and how she needed to be careful not to attract the notice of men. Helen probably wished she could do away with her beauty altogether, to avoid the troubles that would come with it. So that perhaps just one man would look at her as more than just a pretty face. I expect that men wouldn't be held responsible for what her beauty drove them to.

And on that note-- a new pair of letters between Meneleus and Helen are up on GeekaChicas for your reading pleasure!


  1. Unfortunately, w/ an anorexic/bulimic sister, I'm all too aware of this.

  2. I like the idea of Helen wishing she weren't so beautiful. I've always thought of Helen as something of a spoiled brat- after all, she does run away from her husband and start a war by being irresponsible.

    But if she honestly wished she weren't so good-looking that would be a start.

  3. Bane-- I'm sorry to hear that.

    Stephanie-- I think beauty is kind of a curse for Helen, personally. Whether she runs away with Paris, or is taken is still up in the air for the purposes of my book.

  4. "And if you think that kids aren't watching that, aren't witnessing that, aren't paying attention to every comment their mother, sister, cousin, aunt, or grandmother is making about how they don't like the way they look, or how they wish they were skinnier, then we're deluding ourselves."

    Oh, you are so right...I've seen so many reports and notes all over the place about this. But it's common sense, too. I mean, kids totally mimic what they see and what they hear. Which is how they learn, obviously. How they learn to speak, to form words. How they learn that they can walk, and run, and all of the things we take for granted. And then there are all the old gags of little kids swearing after they hear it from Mom or Dad or the TV or a babysitter... so why wouldn't they pick up other unhealthy habits? There really should be more out about this. Even if it doesn't lead to eating disorders, it does lead to unhealthiness, and so much of that goes unnoticed, unreported. I found some horrifying statistics on that, online.

    And as for Helen's beauty--you are absolutely right about it being a curse, which is very interesting, because of how important the body was then, as well. Not just the image of it, but how it could be used. Sure, it's not the same as it was today...but I just think of the cosmetics and jewels that Greek and Roman ladies used back then...

    But I do wonder if she would have been quite so nervous about her own beauty, especially at such a young age (12, right?). Obviously, in what you are writing, Leda has been up front with her daughter about the rape, but how often do you think something like that was reported back then, in such a man's world, even to a daughter who is just barely reaching marriageable age? Would Leda have been worried about repercussions? And did Leda curse her own beauty? Although I like that idea, isn't there a possibility that Helen wouldn't have known? Of course, I do love the approach you've taken. This got longer than I meant for it to get.

  5. Sarah:
    I think that in Helen's case, the fact that she was a daughter of Zeus and Tyndareus was a point of pride. Something to be advertised. Whether Leda was seduced or raped, either way I think she would have cause for concern that the same fate would befall her daughter. I can just imagine Leda brushing her hair and murmuring words of caution. "Helen, you must be careful. Helen, don't ever let a man draw you away from the protection of your brothers, never go anywhere alone." Not unlike the way modern mothers warn their children about the threat of strangers and abductors. You know? Think of how much indoctrination you received as a child, warning of the threat of strangers and men in vans with candy. I distinctly remember one day I was walking home in sixth grade and a friend's mother stopping her van and rolling down the window to shout at us "STRANGER DANGER!!!" as if we weren't being cautious enough.

    So yeah, I think it's reasonable that Leda would warn Helen of the threat of men, caused by her beauty-- and I think she wouldn't even necessarily have to be upfront about being raped herself to do it. Even as sheltered as Helen must have been in the palace, her mother would still fear the gods, and I think it's impossible that it wouldn't rub off on Helen too.


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