Building families key to building self-esteem

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More than 20 years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth, arguing that the main systemic barrier that women face today are the shackles of an unattainable and rigid idea of beauty, which keeps them oppressed — an “Iron Maiden,” perfect, thin, pretty. Today, in 2013, young girls are literally asking the internet whether or not they fit this ideal.

This recent horrifying trend sees pre-teen and teenaged girls, between nine and 14 years-old, taking to Youtube to ask strangers whether they’re “pretty or ugly.” I don’t think I have to tell you that these young girls’ videos are met with disgusting comments, either of a graphically sexual nature or that insult them in ways I could never imagine speaking to a stranger.

This isn’t an isolated trend nor is the internet the only medium through which this attitude is being perpetrated. I guarantee that most women have experienced an extension of this — in fact, I remember being as young as 11 when I first started having strange men comment on my appearance.

The internet acts as a platform making it frighteningly easy to anonymously communicate these attitudes — and frighteningly difficult for girls to get away from uncomfortable situations. The medium may be changing, but the problem remains the same: girls are learning very early on that their looks dictate their worth, and that they have no control over this. Rather, it is up to others to judge whether they’re “pretty” or “ugly,” and thus what they can contribute to society.

This situation cannot be solved by simply telling a girl that she’s beautiful or reminding her that, “pretty” or not, it’s her other qualities that will bring her happiness and success. This has been building and it’s only getting worse with the blurring of the line between public and private.

These ideas of “beauty,” of self-esteem, of external recognition are so embedded in our society, in our media, in our communication that I can’t fathom a pragmatic solution. But something needs to change in the environment that girls are growing up in.

I don’t want a world where my little sister and my future children are learning to measure their self-worth based on their looks, in which eating disorders seem like the only way to attain “beauty,” where 11 year olds are put into situations where they are desperately wondering if they’re worthy of praise from strangers hidden behind computer screens and usernames.

Supportive families is one major way to tackle this and other problems, something that is, unfortunately, not happening enough. We need more programs educating parents; parents need to know if their kids are involved in this kind of behaviour and how to address it. Many families also need to be supported with more financial benefits. Not enough money means that the parent(s) or caregiver(s) have to work more, meaning less opportunity to build and strengthen relationships of dialogue, trust, and support with their children.

Thanks for Family Day, Christy, but families are going to need more than one day a year. To mitigate the effects of what kids are exposed to, one needs a familial support system that, not only knows what’s going on in a kid’s life, but that has also built them up from infancy to know their worth and to know it’s impossible to find in the anonymous void of the internet.

We can’t stop the opposite from happening, but we can encourage families to teach their kids how to safely and critically approach the messages being thrown at them daily.