Children pick up on the “thin, white ideal” as early as three years old, according to decades of research.
July 10, 2023
Raising your child with a healthy, positive self-image is no easy task, especially in a world where they'll receive an onslaught of messaging about how they "should" look. Not only are these cultural beliefs toxic and omnipresent, but there's also a solid chance they're deeply rooted in racism and xenophobia. The Eurocentric thin, white ideal still reigns supreme in more ways than one.
Whether you realize it or not, your child is taking in this harmful messaging at a very young age, and it could shape their relationship to their appearance and self-worth for years to come. So, how do you combat it in the first place and help them see that their unique features are what make them beautiful? And how do you know if you're parroting and perpetuating these narrow beauty standards?
Your little one will likely pick up on racial biases when it comes to image and identity as young as three years old, as two mental health pros tell Scary Mommy.
What the Research Says
Back in the 1940s, researchers conducted experiments called "doll tests" to determine the effects of segregation on children. "In the study, children both Black and white would report a preference for a white doll because it was 'good' as well as attribute positive attributes to the white doll," explains Dr. Jackie Darby, Psy.D., CGP, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified group psychotherapist. "The same children reported negative associations to the Black doll and described the doll as 'bad' because it was Black."
The doll tests "demonstrated that children as young as three had internationalized racial stereotypes," says Darby, adding, "This study has been replicated multiple times since the original 1940 study with similar results."
Decades later, not much has changed, as Stephanie Olano, LMFT adds, citing a 1993 study that found Mexican-American children between 6 to 10 years old can "accurately recognize and identify with their particular ethnic group," which means they are undoubtedly taking in messages rooted in white supremacy as well.
A 2023 study found that chemical hair straighteners and skin lighteners — products primarily aimed at and used by Black and Asian women, respectively — remain a public health concern due to a lack of regulation and ingredients that are known to be toxic, proving that the pursuit of specific Eurocentric features is still prevalent in non-white communities.
Cause and Effect
This presents a minefield for parents of BIPOC and white children alike, who want to celebrate their child's background without putting a colorblind lens on it. "While children may not fully understand their self-identity at this young age, it is important for them to accurately identify themselves and recognize that their cultural background is an essential part of who they are," says Olano. "Unfortunately, the representation of BIPOC children in media and literature is lacking, which can make it difficult for them to see positive representations of themselves and their cultures. This lack of representation can also send the message that only white beauty standards are acceptable."
She adds, "Children's perception of beauty is heavily influenced by their environment, including media, advertising, toys, and interactions with family, peers, and society. For instance, media such as TV shows, movies, magazines, and social media often promote Eurocentric beauty standards by featuring predominantly thin, white, and conventionally attractive characters and celebrities."
Family and societal opinions and behaviors also play a significant role. "Children tend to internalize the norms expressed by those around them," says Olano. Your child will certainly pick up on even small, off-hand comments from family, friends, and other adults around them, with Darby citing statements like "she's cute for a plus-sized girl," messaging around darkness/lightness (such as: "Don't stay outside too long; you will get too dark," or remarks about body image and food). "These messages tell the child what is acceptable and unacceptable in the world."
According to Olano, "Even toys marketed as 'beautiful' or 'ideal' can perpetuate these standards, with dolls often featuring Eurocentric features like fair skin, slim bodies, and specific hair textures," she says, adding, "Finally, peer influence can also shape a child's perception of beauty, with admiration or favor towards those who conform to Eurocentric standards potentially impacting a child's own self-image."
All these factors can negatively influence children of marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds, Olano explains. "In the short term, it can lead to low self-esteem and body image issues, as well as emotional distress such as sadness, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy. In the long term, it can impact identity development, causing a disconnection from cultural heritage, a desire to conform to dominant beauty ideals, or even rejection of one's own racial features. These effects can impact overall sense of self, cultural pride, and mental health, increasing the risk of developing conditions such as depression or eating disorders."
Parents might notice "extreme behaviors such as dieting, overexercising, skin bleaching, or tanning to match the 'ideal beauty standard,'" says Darby.
Challenging the Status Quo
"To challenge racial biases, it's important to educate yourself and become more aware," says Olano. "As a parent, it's important to learn about the pervasive systemic racism, biases, and stereotypes that exist in society. This knowledge can help you better understand the challenges your children may face and equip you with the tools to address these issues effectively. You can introduce your child to diverse cultures, traditions, and experiences through books, movies, music, art, and community events that celebrate different racial and ethnic backgrounds."
Adds Darby, "Parents of BIPOC children can make sure that their children are exposed to a wide array of images of people. The more they are exposed to different images of beauty, the harder it is to fall into the trap that there is just 'one look.'" She recommends talking with your kids about race early and often.
"Encouraging friendships with individuals from diverse backgrounds can foster understanding and empathy," says Olano. "Connect with other parents who share similar experiences and concerns, or join community organizations or support groups that focus on supporting BIPOC families. Seeking guidance from mental health professionals who specialize in racial identity development can also be beneficial."
And parents of white children perhaps have the most critical untangling mission of all. "It's important to recognize and actually address privilege with your children," says Olano.
"Educate them on how privilege can affect opportunities and experiences, and encourage them to use their privilege to advocate for marginalized individuals and work towards breaking down oppressive systems. As a parent, it's essential to model inclusive behaviors by being mindful of your actions and words. Treat everyone with respect, embrace diversity, and speak out against discrimination. Show your children that you value and respect people from all backgrounds by surrounding yourself with diverse friends and acquaintances."
Encourage your children "to listen to and understand the experiences of others," says Olano. "Help them respect and appreciate various perspectives, and empower them to stand up against racism and discrimination. By fostering a sense of responsibility to create a more inclusive and equitable society, you can inspire your children to become advocates for positive change."
"The upholding of one narrow beauty standard impacts everyone," says Darby, though the impacts are not necessarily proportionate, especially among young children of color. Doing what you can to help change the narrative can have positive effects that will stay with your child for decades to come, and it's so worth the work to help them along the way.