Little Girls, Big Problems: What Stock Photos Say About Body Image Anxiety

It started innocently enough, the way Google searches often and optimistically do. I needed a graphic for an article I was editing about how to talk to your daughter about dieting. The author of the piece I was looking to illustrate, a life and health coach, advocated finding ways to talk about making healthy food choices, practicing smart nutrition, finding enjoyable physical activities and cultivating healthy self-esteem divorced from a cut of pants (skinny jeans, I'm looking at you) or dress size. In the new vernacular of adult women's positive and healthy lifestyle trends, diet was certainly a four-letter word. Why wouldn't the same logic apply to young girls? Like I said: Innocence, optimism and Google rarely mix together well.

The Heavy, a recent book about a mother who put her 7-year-old daughter on a diet, cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the ways in which a mother's body image issues shape her parenting choices. It also refocuses attention on juvenile obesity or, more accurately, the beige areas that color clinical and non-clinical perceptions of terms such as "fat," "heavy," "obese," "chubby" and "unhealthy" increasingly assigned to young girls. Therefore, it should not have come as a surprise to see stock image after stock image of very young, pre-pubescent, elementary school-age girls in decidedly unhappy poses contemplating their own weighty body image issues.

One photo featured little feet with pink, painted toenails planted firmly on a bathroom scale. A young girl in a leotard looks at herself in a full-length mirror. Her brow is furrowed, her lips pursed in a scowl. A pair of tiny hands holds a yellow dressmaker's tape measure around her slender waist. The message is unmistakable: Scrutinize, critique, measure, evaluate and maintain constant surveillance over your body, and start this at the tender age of -- what, 5 or 6? Yikes.

Whose issues are on display in these photos? What 7-year-old girl wakes up thinking that she'll watch a little iCarly, play some Angry Birds, and then strip down to her skivvies with her bathroom scale and tape measure to see how much weight she's lost or gained in the last 24 hours? Answer: No one. These ideas are learned and taught, not floating around in the ether like that trick feather in Forrest Gump. The depiction of young girls fretting over their thighs and arms suggests that body image anxiety is not just coming from television shows and fashion magazines. It is coming from adopted behavior, concerns and ideas absorbed from role models and reinterpreted as part of a young girl's cannon of femininity. Being a girl, that wrinkled brow seems to say, involves policing your self for flaws and imperfections.

The best part about being a little girl, from what I remember, was the lack of body consciousness as it related to image and self-value. I once rocked an ill-fitting ballerina dance costume I begged my mom to buy me at a yard sale. I wore it around the house, up at our summer lake property, basically whenever I felt compelled to feel a bit of satin and sequins against my skin. And I did so without worrying about what was bulging out or flopping around or jiggling. It made me feel magical, amazing and beautiful. Adjectives that should still apply at 7 or 77. Little girls should be free to enjoy their bodies and love themselves unconditionally. And big girls might want to take note. It might do us good to learn more from our younger selves and teach a little less.