Children Internalize Beauty Standards at an Early Age — Here's How to Break That Cycle

Unlike the alphabet or multiplication tables, beauty standards aren't something children are explicitly taught. Instead, children learn what the outside world considers beautiful through countless interactions with adults, other kids, TV shows, movies, magazines, and even social media.

Madeline Lucas, LCSW, a therapist at Real, says you might not even realize you're internalizing these societal beauty standards, but they quickly become a part of how you perceive yourself and those around you. "Perhaps growing up you were told to never leave the house with your hair wet, your mom prioritizing her weekly blowout. Perhaps you remember sitting at the dinner table reaching for that second piece of bread when a parent swats your hand away," she explains. "All of these actions are (sometimes unintentionally) communicating to us what a beauty standard is and what is necessary to achieve it."

By the time they reach adulthood, most children have already internalized which body types, hair styles, and skin tones society finds "beautiful" — and have even altered the way they see themselves, Lucas says. We spoke to her to help us unpack the ways beauty standards can affect self-image and the role representation plays in children's lives — plus, what adults can do to create a more inclusive definition of beauty.

Beauty Standards' Impact on Children

Kids are constantly observing the world around them, Lucas explains, so even subtle signals like dolls that only come in one skin tone or a parent who is always talking about losing weight can have a huge impact. "It does not take long for children to become aware of certain body types or looks receiving attention or recognition, while others are not," she says.

Once children realize that society only considers certain people beautiful, it doesn't take long for them to superimpose those beauty standards on themselves. "Over time, constantly being bombarded with these unrealistic beauty standards can not only impact self-esteem, but can lead to certain behaviors in pursuit of attaining perfection, such as extreme dieting or fixation to permanently change a part of your body," Lucas says.

Appearance-based compliments — like "you look so adorable" or "aren't you a pretty princess?" — can also reinforce the idea that looking a certain way is the most important thing. "This makes it hard for a child to foster a sense of self that is not reliant on appearance," Lucas says. Instead, Lucas recommends that adults focus on moments of recognition that aren't tied to looks — like complimenting a child's intelligence when they bring home a good grade, laughing at their jokes and praising their sense of humor, or even acknowledging their wild imagination at story time.

Simply refocusing the conversation away from beauty standards can free up mental space for the child to focus on other things, like homework, family time, or playing with friends. When looks do come up, parents, teachers, and other adults can make a point to highlight all different types of beauty, creating a more inclusive definition for children. "By expanding what is considered beautiful, children can benefit from feelings of inclusion, feeling 'good enough' as is, and higher rates of self-confidence," Lucas says.


Representation in Pop Culture

Media and pop culture also play a huge role in shaping what children see as beautiful. If the main characters of every TV show and movie they watch look a certain way, they'll begin to understand that as beautiful. Think about all the animated movies that typically depict thin, white women as princesses.

Similarly, Lucas says that simply seeing other people with their same skin tone or hair texture in media can be hugely impactful. "When children see someone who looks like them being celebrated or acknowledged or just plain represented on a screen in general, they can internalize that they too are seen and appreciated in the world," she says.

Seek out books, TV shows, and movies with diverse characters to help kids learn that all different kinds of people are beautiful and ensure they can see themselves in pop culture. Regardless of what you're watching together, "encourage children to be curious about what they're seeing and what meaning they're deriving from it," Lucas says. Adults can also help remind children that what you see on TV isn't real life — and that beauty comes in all different shapes, sizes, and skin tones.

Modeling a More Inclusive Definition of Beauty

Another way to influence the way children see themselves is by making a conscious effort to model discernment around concepts like beauty. "The first step is to notice how unhealthy societal expectations impact your life," Lucas says. "See how you can incorporate a practice of loving yourself and appreciating your looks just as they are."

Spend some time thinking about your personal definition of beauty and investigating how you feel about yourself. Notice when you feel compelled to tear yourself down — like for taking an unflattering photo or finding a gray hair for the first time — and try to treat yourself more kindly. Also consider when you feel most beautiful, and make it a point to celebrate your favorite parts of yourself.

Although it might be a subtle change, the kids in your life will pick up on it. "[Role models] can demonstrate how one's identity and value is not tied to whether or not they reach society's standards of beauty," Lucas explains. Of course, you're not going to rewrite your understanding of what beauty means overnight — and that's OK.

"These beauty standards have been hardwired into us for years on end," Lucas says. "The goal here is not to 'break' these habits once and for all and never notice an unhealthy beauty standard. It is to notice when these are popping up, get curious and intentional with moving through those moments, and be kind to ourselves as we try to make a shift to a more supportive and expansive idea of beauty for ourselves and our children."

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