Promoting Positive Self-Esteem in Girls

Updated on March 22, 2010
L.Z. asks from Arlington, MA
10 answers

I may be overanalyzing this based on my own past, but I wanted to hear from other moms of little girls out there to find out if I am handling my 4-year old and her recent behaviors well! She seems to be a lot more aware of what female images she finds "pretty" lately and I want to be sure I am promoting her own self-esteem so she doesn't go through the degree of body and image issues I did as a teenager and young woman. For example, when she was recently working on her letters in a Barbie activity book, she was saying which Barbie faces she found pretty and then saying, "I want to be this one." I asked her what made those faces pretty to her and she wasn't able to really articulate it, except that one had long hair. I just keep reminding her that she is pretty, and I said repeatedly that many different people and styles are pretty, not just long hair or Barbies. She also has been saying she wants to be like "Romeo" (she means Taylor Swift), largely because my husband often shows her the video of her songs on You Tube since my daughter likes the music. She even pretends to dance and sing like her. I know I can't shield her from all of this, and I honestly don't want to or think I need to, but I want to raise two healthy and happy girls who don't feel they need to look just like a Barbie to be a valuable member of society! Like I said, I know I am sensitive to this because of my own upbringing, I just wanted to hear from other moms with girls and what you feel worked for you and your girls. Thank you!

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So What Happened?

Thank you all for taking the time to reply and speak from your experiences. I am going to get the books recommended and I also like the suggestions about bringing my daughter's focus back to the character and positive personality traits of some of the female characters she sees and admires. It is so tough to know if I am dealing effectively with my girls in this looks-obsessed world; definitely the toughest part of raising girls, in my opinion! This helps, however, so thanks again!

More Answers



answers from Boston on

Hi L.,

There is no doubt that media, from entertainment to advertising saturates young girls with this ideal that to be a valuable female is to be sexy and considered attractive to the opposite sex. To a certain extent you can not avoid this. Frankly, we all appreciate physical beauty. It is important, however to balance this with opportunities for your young girls to build self-esteem, confidence and to become accomplished in other areas.

At this age your girls are trying different personas and exploring a variety of interests. Personally, I don't believe any t.v. is good. It is virtually impossible to avoid the blatant exploitation of young girls and women if you watch t.v. Certainly, there are some shows which are educational, but if you are not sure of the content, I would just keep the television off. In addition to it's exploitation of girls is a huge waster of time and kills the brain!

Taylor Swift is popular in our house too. From what I can see she is not a bad role model. She is a great singer and yes, physically quite beautiful. It has not been my experience that she is overly sexualized and enjoying her music in moderation I have no problem with. I can no longer say that of Miley Cyrus though.

Beauty is important to everyone. No matter how hard you try, you are not going to get to the point where your girls are completely unconcerned with their physical self. I try to find opportunities with my daughters to actually point out when I see a particularily attractive young women who is dressed stylish but respectfully. I will also occasionally point out (not obviously in either of these cases, of course!) young women who are dressed provocativally. Together we share the difference between the two and what we think when we see each girl. My girls have begun to see that it is hard to consider any other aspect of the provocativally dressed young women other than her sexuality due to the way she presents herself. This has been a powerful message.

It is also important to have clear moral values and raise your girls with them. If you are religious, attending services regularly is a great way to teach and reinforce moral values.

As far a commercial endeavors that I have found worthwhile, I have not been able to find any fault in the American Girl stories or dolls. I mean, they are girls, and yes, most girls do love dolls. American girl has a lot of books on issues important to young girls and I've yet to find one I take issue with. (and I'm a very conservative person) Boys and girls are not the same and that's not only ok, it is great! Help your girls embrace their uniqueness whether their desires lead them to traditional domestic interests (think Martha Stewart!) or to rocket science.

Don't underestimate the power of your appreciation of your girls' uniqueness. Take opportunities to sincerely complement your daughters on characteristics, both physical and otherwise, that you love about them. "Your smile always makes me happy" "I love the way you think of other people's feelings" "You have true talent in art" or "You should persue that music talent" "It is great to watch you play soccer, you show great promise" These compliments should be sincere. Don't fall into the trap of having to say to the other daughter "Your really good at that too." If one child says "aren't I good too?" simply say, you both have so many great qualities, I was just noticing something special about your sister today. Don't you think she did a great job?" I always balance this by asking the other daughter "what do you think your sister is great at?" Honestly, my girls are 8 and 10 and they really do support one another and have been great at pointing out positive characteristics about each other when asked.

While currently your girls are quite young, it is great you are aware of the influence of society and media on their sense of self. It becomes increasingly important as they begin puberty for them to have found passions and interests that they can pursue (other then boys!) in order to keep them balanced young women who refuse to be pigeon holed into a role that society has made for them. It is a hard battle to fight and it won't be won in one generation, but it is a battle worth the energy.

Best Wishes!

J. L.

P.S. A couple of great books. "Packaging Girlhood" and "Reviving Opelia, Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls"

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Hartford on

It's tough in this day and age. But I think at 4 the best you can do is just show her pictures of not typical Hollywood images and tell her what you think makes that person beautiful. Or even point out people you know personally like family and friends. And let her know they are beautiful too. We're always going to want what we don't have though. And right now for her it might be as simple as that person has long hair and she wishes she had longer hair or something. But if you show her the things that you value in a person and can show her that makes a person beautiful and then as she gets older and her body starts changing you will have different things to discuss with her. My oldest daughter is 10 right now. She doesn't have low self esteem at all, but she doesn't like what's happening with her body. So I have an open door policy. Anytime she wants to talk just come to me. I did have to tell her that if it's a time when I'm preparing dinner or doing homework with her sister or cleaning up her brother that she could write it down for another time when I could focus more on her questions. This has worked well. She decides if we talk with the door open or closed. If we include her father in the conversation. I think her dad is more uncomfortable with that though, LOL. But for now I wouldn't place too much concern in how she thinks Barbie is beautiful, but instead would just show her what I think makes a person beautiful. Go through the photo album with her and tell her so and so is beautiful because she's got a big heart. It's hard for kids this young to see past appearances. It's hard for lots of people to see past appearances. But if you can show her that looking at a person's personality is best, then she'll be fine. It's okay for her to like Taylor Swift or Hannah Montana or any of those stars, but as long as you keep open communication with her I think you'll find as she gets older she won't think that everything these famous people do is what she has to do or look like.



answers from San Francisco on

I think you are doing the right thing!
In our household I don't ever mention my personal shape or how I feel I look around my kids. And we especially don't mention the weight or shape of others around them, either. Body image is a challenge. Keep up the good work!



answers from Boston on

Two books: Packaging Girlhood by Lamb and Brown has positive steps to help your daughter become a conscious observer and maybe even a resistor. There is also So Sexy So Soon by Levine and Kilbourne which also talks about girl's images. My daughter is 8 I wish I had started with her as young as two with the clothing choices I made for her. I am also educating my son in the same concepts because boys are easy targets too.

Just an example: (paraphrasing here) When kids are toddlers we dress them in comfy clothes they can run and jump around. But once they're out of the toddler stage-- at a time when they need to feel big and brave and widen their reach and tumble down hills and scrape knees we dress them in crop tops and tight low rise jeans that discourage movement. At a time when we should be teaching them that what they can do is more important than how they look....well... you get the gist.

I'm reading both right now and I'm so grateful to have found these books before my daughter is a teenager and it's a harder battle.

You're doing the right thing and there's help to do more.




answers from San Diego on

This is a hard one. My little girl is only 2 years old and I have not had to cross this bridge yet (she wants to be Michael Jackson!!). I personally have never ever had body image, or self-esteem issues with regards to physical appearance. And, this must have had so much to do with my mother and how she raised us. Hence, I can only harken back to what my mother did and why that led to us two sisters to be very confident about our physical appearance. The focus on our upbringing was always about character, intelligence and originality. Fitting in with the rest (whatever the "rest" was) was openly considered a sign of weakness. Focusing on physical appearance was considered something that only dumb girls who had nothing else going on did. Yes, my mother's "lessons" were strong ones. As a result (I think), I have a Phd and my sister has a Master's in Mass Communication and holds a very high position at a global media company (Turner broadcasting) but we never had any shortage of boys/men in our lives and are both currently in loving marriages. What I will do for my daughter though, I don't know yet....I try to deflect attention when people comment on her "blue eyes" or her "pretty hair"...but she is still young, and I have not started my work in earnest. Great question!



answers from Mansfield on

I also think you are doing the right thing. Explaining that all girls/women are beautiful (and men too)in different ways and to different people is important. My husband tells me all the time he thinks I am beautiful although I don't feel it (even). So I try to just say thank you but usually responde that he is blind. I have acne and so feel unbeautiful because of my skin.
I was once told (because I do have very pretty girls and I often told them..still do but try not to as much) that we need to promote selfesteem more in character qaulities and not so much in appearance. My oldest daughter (middle child) used to have beautiful curly hair until I cut it short, now (even after grown back out) it is thick and wavy enough to always look messy. When my daughter was little I would ask what made her pretty (trying to get the point across that it wasn't how she looked) but she would usually answer "my hair" well now she doesn't have quite that hair so sometimes she will forget that I am looking for a character qaulity answer and she will say I don't know. Although I still tell my girls they are beautiful and their brother he is handsome I try to compliment them more on their character. K.G is very smart and always makes people smile, K.A. is athletic and challanges the way you think and respond, K.M. is very sweet natured and loves to "mother". Things like that. I don't know your belief system but I always try to find what God loves about my kids and tell them that we both love them and appreciate them for that. However my husband often comments on how people look so they know that people do look and judge on appearance and they may not always like the way they look or how they think others see them and positive changes are ok as long as they are healthy and happy. We try to promote a healthy lifestyle so being over or underweight is not healthy and we talk about that but we also talk about smoking and other un healthy choices as well. I try to always find a beautiful healthy woman (or man for my son) to comment on either an actress or just someone we see in the store. She usually is not barbie thin (thats not healthy) but you can tell she is in good shape and takes good care of herself not matter hair, eye,or skin color, breast size or even facial features, she is beautiful because she is healthy and happy.
Hope this helps :)



answers from Boston on

I would also like to recommend Packaging Girlhood, by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown. It addresses the many forms of media influences on our children, how to keep an open dialogue and become self-informed as our daughters grow.
Good luck,



answers from Boston on

I have been dealing with this issue with my daughter. We don't buy Barbies, or anything Barbie related, but it's totally natural for little girls to be in love with "beautiful" princesses, Barbies, celebrities, etc. It's nearly impossible to avoid in our culture.

Fortunately - MOST of these "beauties" have other redeeming qualities. When my daughter comments on wanting to be a beautiful princess, we tell her how we admire Cinderella's kindness, Belle's love of books, Snow White's care of animals and other people. When she sees a Barbie in a store, we talk about her sparkly gown, her sweet smile, her twinkling eyes. If I don't agree with how a doll, etc is dressed, I talk to my daughter about it. She knows that Mommy doesn't like Bratz because they seem to have a bad attitude. Body shape/type NEVER comes into play, and my daughter feels validated in her feelings. As she gets older I'm sure we'll deal with these issues in greater depth, but right now I have a caring, kind, thoughtful, confident little girl who is beautiful inside and out!



answers from Detroit on

I have four girls and I talk more about how smart, funny, caring, and helpful they are other than how pretty. Don't get me wrong I tell them that they are pretty but I make sure that's not the only thing they hear. There is more to life than being pretty. My girls also love Taylor Swift. I'd rather they like her than someone like Brittany Spears. Taylor is a girl they can look up to. She not only pretty but she has a mind too.



answers from Boston on

It can be so hard, especially in our looks-obsessed society, to raise strong, independent, caring young women! As the mom of four girls (ages 29 - 16), I can totally relate to your concerns. Like one of the commenters here, I focus on character, not on looks. Don't worry about being pretty. Comment on attributes you value, like kindness, intelligence, honesty, etc. I've always told my girls that looks are a gift from God and an accident of genetics. There's nothing you can do about that. Character is what you build for yourself. And by all means, focus on healthy choices in diet and in an active lifestyle. Eating healthfully is a great deal more difficult than just talking about whether or not someone's fat. With all our fast-food and preprocessed options, we need to educate our kids on how to eat well.

At the same time, I learned to start commenting EARLY on behavior & attire you find appropriate and inappropriate in others. I missed the boat on this with my older girls but caught on when my now-teenagers were little. When we were out in public, I'd point out a teenager I thought dressed well and comment on how nice he or she looked. And if we saw someone with jeans that I thought were too tight or too low, I'd ask my girls why anyone would want to leave the house with her underwear showing or pants so tight they must give her a wedgie. You get the idea. Looking good should be an element of self-respect, not part of pleasing others or fitting in.

Promote attributes you value. Don't call attention to things that aren't important (like looks). Encourage your little one to be healthful and respect herself. Love her like crazy. She'll be fine -- and so will you!

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