Peruse any magazine display in the grocery store checkout line and the headlines say it all: A “bikini body” in five easy steps, ten outfits to “impress him,” and four secrets to your “dream hair.” From photos on social media to billboards on the highway, everywhere you look are messages that place an ever-present emphasis on physical appearance. You probably know that these glossy photos are unrealistic and airbrushed, but the messages they send have real consequences for girls–and for all of us.
Our appearance-focused culture can easily lead to objectification, where people are reduced to objects whose value is based solely on their looks. Research shows that from objectification there is a slippery slope to self-objectification, when women and girls gradually internalize society’s messages and begin seeing themselves as objects to be evaluated based on their appearance. This causes an unhealthy feedback loop of self-consciousness and self-monitoring of one’s outward appearance, which can ultimately lead to an image-based self-worth, a type of confidence that is fleeting and often unattainable.
Peggy Orenstein, renowned journalist and expert on girl culture, writes that self-objectification has been associated with depression, reduced cognitive function, lower GPA, distorted body image, body monitoring, eating disorders, and lower political efficacy (the belief that you can enact change on the public level).
Scary, right? And though we don’t want to think of this as happening to girls, we know that objectification and self-objectification begin at a young age and disproportionately impact women and girls, whose appearance is constantly evaluated, critiqued, praised, and monitored, in the media and in everyday conversation.
So, what can we do to change the narrative? Let’s explore.
Learn to Identify Image-Based Self-Worth
Image-based self-worth can show up in many forms: constant comparison to other girls or media figures, hyper-awareness of one’s physical appearance, equating non-appearance related success or failures to appearance (think, “My life would be so much better if I lost five pounds.”), or turning a simple observation into a value judgement (“Ugh, why do I have such short legs?”).
Avoid Appearance-Focused Conversation
Appearance can be easy to comment on, especially if you don’t know someone well, but research has found that even benign compliments have negative consequences. Appearance-focused compliments can reinforce the idea that appearance is of utmost importance, and it serves as a reminder that appearance is being monitored (“Why didn’t she compliment my hairstyle yesterday, but she did today?”). The study also found that girls were more likely to receive positive appearance comments from peers and from parents than boys were. Luckily, with some practice, focusing on non-appearance related compliments can become second nature. For more tips on practicing healthy self-talk and giving meaningful compliments, check out this previous post.
Her appearance might still be important to her and she might enjoy expressing herself through her clothing choices, hairstyle, etc. If you want to recognize that, try “You always know the perfect thing to wear for events like this” or “Your sense of style is so unique and fun!” as a way to affirm who she is without excessive focus on appearance.
Be Intentional About Media exposure
Studies show that all media exposure impacts how girls view themselves. While we can’t insulate girls from all media exposure, we can create intentional media-free zones, have reflective dialogue about media, and develop critical media literacy skills. Whether you’re watching a movie with your troop or listening to girls talk about their favorite celebrities, you can ask questions like, “Do you think this is a realistic portrayal of _____?” or “What do you think happens in this person’s life that they don’t share on Instagram?” Check out this post on media literacy for more ideas.
Create Opportunities for Her to Use Her Voice
Objectification can make girls feel voiceless. Remind her of the value of her voice by creating space for what she has to say, listening intently when she shares, and encouraging her to share her ideas with other Girl Scouts, classmates, family, or community. Activities and conversation emphasizing self-expression and identity can help build up her self-worth. Girl Scouts’ girl-led model is built on the importance of girl voice and leadership, so let her lead and provide support along the way!
Challenge an Objectifying Culture
Appearance-centered, insecurity-based marketing is a business model—and an extremely effective one at that. Don’t support brands that rely on objectification as a marketing strategy. Challenge objectifying language and behavior when you see or hear it, and work on modeling a positive self-image to your Girl Scouts. As an adult, this reframing may feel like a radical shift, especially if you too grew up in this appearance-focused culture. Your actions and words can serve as a positive, meaningful example in a sea of confusing, appearance-focused messages—and it might just boost your confidence too!
Looking for more resources to explore and share with your troop? Check out Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In, two great documentaries that focus on the role mainstream media plays in shaping young people’s self-image.
McKayla Murphy – McKayla is a program resources specialist at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and a minor in dance. McKayla is passionate about racial equity, critical media studies, and art education. She enjoys dancing, trying new food, and seeking adventure (including winter camping and travel). Staples in McKayla’s life include dark chocolate, her hammock, and plenty of reading material.