Keeping Up with Who? Helping Teens Navigate a Beauty-Driven Culture

A group of friends walk together; one looks at camera smiling. Pop culture has forever impacted your teenage daughter. She may have idolized Hermione Granger, the heroine from Harry Potter, in her younger years—and perhaps she still does. But she is also probably quite aware that pouty-lipped glamour girls, such as the Kardashian sisters, are the ones who are often more likely to get noticed. Various forms of social media provide ample material for comparing who has what, who looks like what, who goes where—enabling her to determine how she stacks up by the standards of pop culture.

As a parent to two teenage daughters and a counselor to countless others, I am deeply troubled by the number of girls today who believe they are inferior if they don’t know how to contour their makeup or if they don’t have a round enough backside. I am in no way a prude nor a traditionalist, but I am concerned “well-rounded” has taken on an entirely new meaning. What happened to intelligence? Integrity? Resilience? It seems that for many, these traits are about as essential as VHS tapes, and enormous amounts of verbal and emotional energy are necessary to fight this discouraging trend.

Let’s consider the Kardashians for a moment. I’m sure they are a nice family just trying to make a buck, and I respect them for that. But they don’t often post pictures of themselves doing volunteer work, studying, or enriching the world beyond aesthetics. So what message are they sending out? Social media are ubiquitous and influential, and our children are listening and watching.

Some might suggest removing social media would remove the influence. But look around—these messages are everywhere. Television cannot be watched without some overtly sexual reference, magazines advertisements show models wearing very little clothing, and friendships are often measured in virtual “likes.” It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cut out all forms of social media and entertainment that may further the belief that looks are of higher value than, say, intelligence or personality.

The answer, then, may be to give our children the tools to navigate this culture, instead of attempting to shield them entirely from its influence. If you find yourself unsure how to begin, consider these suggestions:

1. Avoid focusing on looks. 

  • Tell them they are beautiful AND brilliant. When they leave for school, for example, compliment their outfit or hairstyle, but emphasize their talent, intelligence, and ability.
  • Teach by example. If you frequently express discontent with your own looks, realize they may be somewhat influenced by your comments. Instead, cultivate an environment of body positivity and acceptance and help them learn to love the body they have. This may include teaching them learn everyone’s body is different, discussing the difference between cheap and expensive self-worth, and helping them learn how everyone can be beautiful, inside and out.
  • Ask what they like about themselves. Their answers may surprise you. They may like their hair but hate their body. They may like their body but hate their face. Whatever the case, asking provides the opportunity to talk about body image in a helpful way. If they do express discontent with some aspect of themselves, you are likely to be the best person to help them find healthy and positive methods of addressing this discontent while reinforcing values.

Try these compliments:

  1. Your smile could light up a room.
  2. You are kind, generous, and loving.
  3. Your positivity is infectious.

2. Emphasize values.

  • Determine family values. If you value education, remind them an education will never fade and will never go out of style. Spend time together talking or doing enjoyable activities to reinforce these values and balance the influence of social media and pop culture. You might, for example, volunteer as a family and discuss why volunteer work is important and how it positively impacts your community and family.
  • Make sure role models are helping to enhance positive self-image, not hurting it. Trusted adult relatives and family friends can have a significant influence, and a chance comment may leave an impact.
  • Ask questions that show your interest in their developing minds and ideas. “If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?” “What charities would you like to support?”

Try these compliments:

  1. I can tell you worked very hard.
  2. That was a really intelligent argument.
  3. That was a kind thing to do.

3. Support friendships and hobbies. 

  • Teach the importance of cultivating passions and hobbies that can be used as self-care during challenging times. Help them understand the value of self-care and encourage them to make it a regular practice. Try activities you can do together and discuss—read a book and compare notes, take a fitness class, or go on a hike or nature walk.
  • Encourage teenagers who are fond of “selfies” to use their phone cameras to take pictures of the world as they see it.
  • Talk about ways to develop and cultivate lasting friendships that do not depend on beauty or looks.

Try these compliments:

  1. I really admire the choice you just made.
  2. That was a mature decision.
  3. I can tell your friends really look up to you.

It can be difficult to keep up with the many influences in your teenager’s life, but this work is necessary to create a new culture of balanced, healthy adults who love themselves for reasons beyond their looks—no matter who is watching.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist in Clarkston, Michigan

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Maryellen

    Maryellen

    May 5th, 2017 at 6:54 AM

    Looks have always been important to most young people that I know, myself when I was younger too! I think that in this day of snapchat and instagram it has gotten even worse! There is pressure from so many areas today, areas that were not even around when the rest of us were growing up.
    It is very difficult to be a teenager especially a girl when there is now so much pressure to be this or that or to wear this or that… I wish that some of that would go away but I have a fear that with technology continuing to grow and change this is something that is going to be here for a long time.

  • Reta

    Reta

    May 6th, 2017 at 7:35 AM

    I have always tried to talk more to my girls about internal things are the things that make you valuable and beautiful, not what is on the outside. This is a battle that we have to fight against every day though because for the most part this is not the message that they always hear from others. Parents are the ones that they usually at a young age trust more than anyone else. You have to let them know all of these things while they are young so that when they start to naturally rebel against what you tell them, they will have this foundation that will hopefully help them fight the negative that will inevitably come from other sources.

  • Melody

    Melody

    May 6th, 2017 at 6:58 PM

    This article is so important regarding not only self-esteem, but the lack thereof which contributes to self-harm. My name is Melody and I am with TreasureLives Suicide Prevention & Mental Health Awareness. I was recently “nominated” for the Best Blogger Appreciation “Award” and in turn am nominatinghttps://www.goodtherapy.org. There is some work involved. I will be contacting you soon with the details. Meanwhile, congratulations, and I hope you choose to participate! Sincerely, Melody

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 8th, 2017 at 9:05 AM

    Hi Melody,

    Thank you for your comment. If you would like to contact our editorial team directly, please email editor@goodtherapy.org.

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org

  • eliza

    eliza

    May 8th, 2017 at 7:49 AM

    Yeah the trying to keep up with notions of what is beautiful and not?Definitely a trigger for my own battle with eating addictions.

  • andrea k

    andrea k

    May 8th, 2017 at 11:27 AM

    It is okay to want to look and feel pretty, but not at the expense of risking it all to be that way. You have to be pretty on the inside before one will ever see you as pretty on the outside. This is the piece that always seems to be missing and that no one seems to care all that much about. They just think that the rest of the stuff will all fall into place if you are pretty enough. It may be true but it’s not the stuff that lasts.

  • diane

    diane

    May 12th, 2017 at 12:31 PM

    I am in my forties and still struggle with body image issues. I agree that parents should focus on more than appearance, but i also think feeling pretty is important for girls and women. I think parents should tell their daughter how beautiful she is. With all the negative messages out there telling her she is ugly, (from media, older siblings, mean kids at school ), she needs to have at least one person who tells her she pretty. . Also, when teenagers spend lots of time and effort on their looks, i think they would really appreciate a compliment. Dont forget this stuff is important to them. If they put that much effort in their homework, you would compliment them. But when it come to mastering a hairstyle, parents just find it silly, complain and criticize,

  • william o

    william o

    May 12th, 2017 at 12:57 PM

    I would like to speak out and say that this can also be an issue for young men as well. We have that same pressure, it might not be quite as great as what most females feel but believe me in certain settings it is still there. I think that there are many males who hide their insecurities about this because they don’t think that it is something that they should be feeling, but how can anyone avoid it when the pretense is always there? All we hear is look pretty, exercise, look good feel good blah blah blah, and it just becomes ingrained in your head. All I’m saying is that it is a problem that really doesn’t have any boundaries really.

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