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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Obsession With Beauty

Christian parents and teachers try to counter cultural messages about bodily appearance

By Jocelyn Green
Oct. 17, 2010

Lipstick. Mascara. Diet products. Anti-aging creams. Cosmetic surgery.

It’s no secret that our culture’s obsession with beauty fuels a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S. Apparently, it’s a contagious addiction; new studies show that schoolgirls’ pursuit for bodily perfection is on the rise.

A survey by the NPD Group five years ago showed that, on average, women began using beauty products at 17. By last year, the average had fallen to 13 years old. According to market research firm Experian, 43 percent of 6- to 9-year-olds are already using lipstick or lip gloss.

Among tween girls, ages 8 to 12, the percentage who regularly use mascara and eyeliner nearly doubled from 2007 to 2009. On average, tweens regularly use 4.5 different beauty products.

“From a little girl’s first trip down the toy aisles, she will begin to learn that her value is in her looks,” says Elizabeth Leonard, professor of sociology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. “Play cosmetic kits that once targeted female adolescents are now being marketed to preschoolers. Dolls are more sexualized, thus teaching little girls that this particular look is desirable. Clothing for little girls has become less about function and more about looking like little adults. It doesn’t take long for girls to become defined and to define themselves as sex objects. Childhood is rapidly disappearing.”

Obsession with beauty sends a clear message even the youngest girls can understand: Appearance matters more than character. Airbrushed models set an unattainable standard, sending those who compare themselves into a spiral of discontent.

“The effects include an increase in the risk of eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, even self-contempt,” Leonard says. “We see younger and younger girls dieting and asking for — and getting — cosmetic surgery.”

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than 219,000 cosmetic plastic surgery procedures were performed on people ages 13-19 in 2008.

“We are bombarded with the message that something has to be done to feel better or be accepted,” says Sarah Bragg, author of Body. Beauty. Boys. The Truth About Girls and How We See Ourselves. “This kind of fixation can only lead to destruction. It is the exact opposite message of Christ. Not only does God look at the heart, but also when you become a Christian an internal transformation takes place. If the emphasis is on our outer beauty, then we begin to shift our focus away from what is most important and life changing.”

As a girl, Bragg says she compared herself to celebrities and other females she encountered.

“It’s easy to feel pressure to be thinner if the mother always talks about needing to diet herself,” Bragg says. “If the mother is obsessed with her own appearance and weight, then that can have a negative impact on a daughter.”

Molly Colton, Girls Ministries director for the Assemblies of God Southern New England District, still catches herself making an occasional comment in front of her daughter about wanting to lose weight.

“But we as adult women have to be so careful, because it will impact our daughters and the girls we’re working with,” Colton says.

Lydia Anello, now 22 years old, became concerned about her weight early in her elementary school years, mostly, she says, in response to comments family members made. By the time she became a teenager, she felt depressed about her appearance.

“I hated what I looked like,” Anello says. “I thought my family was disappointed in me. All I thought about was that I wouldn’t be happy until I was skinny.”

Colton says that by the time girls reach middle school, many have low self-esteem, stemming from constant comparison.

“I call it the Leah Syndrome,” Colton says. “In Genesis, Rachel was so beautiful, and Leah never felt that she was good enough, pretty enough. Because of our culture’s definition of what beauty is, they just never feel beautiful. They don’t love who God made them to be.”

It wasn’t until Anello heard in her Girls Ministries classes about finding true self-worth in God that her perspective began to change.

“Hearing for the first time that God sees me as beautiful and perfect was an eye-opener,” Anello says.

Colton says that AG Girls Ministries make a point to teach that inner beauty is most important.

“Girls have to know that God loves them, we were created in His image, we are fearfully and wonderfully made,” she says. “We stress that true beauty comes from within, and that you need to know who you are in Christ. We look at the fruit of the Spirit and the Proverbs 31 woman.”

Parents and youth workers can counteract the cultural messages about beauty in several ways.

“Resist buying things that focus a child on how she looks,” Leonard advises. “Provide activities that build character and multiple competencies. Compliment children on who they are inside and on the positive things they do, rather than commenting so often on how they look. Just as Jesus defied His culture’s rules on women by teaching them, honoring them and encouraging their ministry, so parents and youth workers can encourage girls and women to heed the call to be who God created them to be rather than simply being products of today’s distorted culture.”

Eventually, Anello realized even beautiful women weren’t satisfied with their appearance.

“Seeing that you can’t find happiness in the way you look, I didn’t want to attain that unachievable standard anymore,” Anello says. “I would much rather spend time and energy becoming a woman of God than starving myself.”

Today, Anello assists in Girls Ministries classes at Pinebrook Assembly of God in Naugatuck, Conn.

“I try to make sure they know I am satisfied with the way I look,” she says. “I don’t want them to have to go through life not having an example of a woman who teaches and lives by the fact that inner beauty matters more.”

Freelance writer JOCELYN GREEN is a mother of two children and works from her Cedar Falls, Iowa, home.

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