My Child Asked Me If She’s Ugly. Here’s How I Responded

Children internalize the media’s representation of beauty and ‘perfection’—and we need to fight to change that.
(Photo: YouTube)
May 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Seth Matlins is a marketer, an author, and the creator of the Truth in Advertising Act.

It happened two years ago, when my daughter was eight. I was putting her to bed when, in her quiet, small voice, she asked, “Daddy, do you think I’m ugly?”

If you’ve ever had your heart broken, you know what that moment felt like. I struggled to find the right words to tell this magnificent little human that no, I didn’t think she was ugly—that she was, in fact, beautiful. My mind raced to find ways to comfort and soothe her while also hoping to teach her to question why beauty, especially a narrowcast definition that excludes so many people we know and love, is so all-consumingly important in our society.

I left her room with so many questions of my own. What and who put that thought into my girl’s beautiful mind and those feelings into her tender little heart? What and who had made her feel less-than at only eight years old?

The truth is, we don’t parent our children alone.

Their earliest views of themselves and the world they’re growing up in are shaped by friends, teachers, neighbors, politicians, shopkeepers, and strangers. Moreover, our children are often insidiously parented by the sociocultural influences surrounding them—photoshopped advertising standing out first and foremost. Short of isolating and blindfolding our kids, even a parent’s best efforts can’t keep these pervasive messages and influences away.

Children can’t help but absorb and internalize the images of beauty and “perfection”—often altered so significantly that even the models and actors no longer resemble or recognize themselves—screaming at them from store windows, magazine covers, and billboards. An innocuous drive to school, a walk in the park, a playdate, a trip to the mall for socks—these all become exercises in media literacy, as their tender minds are prodded and poked by images, ideas, and so-called ideals that parent alongside mothers and fathers, with no regard for what we want and think.

They see what’s false, think it’s true, compare themselves to fiction, and take to dieting, hating, and hurting themselves when they fall inevitably short of the manufactured fantasy.

The more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves. Fifty-three percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17 years old, this number reaches 78 percent. When they’re adults, it’ll be 91 percent—the net sum of a lifetime of being parented and bullied by popular culture.

Having spent 25 years in marketing, much of it in Hollywood, I understand the power of the media. I know that advertising works. It works to influence our attitudes and behaviors, and, in the case of ads that Photoshop their subjects into people they’re not, it plays a huge role in how my kids (among tens of millions of others across gender, demographic, and socioeconomic lines) think and feel about themselves.

While the ads themselves purport to be selling shampoo, lingerie, or hamburgers, more often than not, they’re selling what actor Lupita Nyong’o has referred to as “the seduction of inadequacy.” Our children (and the adults they’ll become) are buying into these messages and this inadequacy in epidemic-size numbers, and many will carry the hurt, frustration, and shame of their perceived “inadequacy” for a lifetime.

These ads are the mental equivalent of secondhand smoke: ubiquitous, unavoidable clouds of toxic messaging, infecting the minds and bodies of our children, teaching them to chase computer-generated versions of “perfection” that they have no chance, no hope, and no way of ever catching.

Binders full of data prove this false and unfair practice causes and contributes to an array of mental, emotional, and physical health issues: stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate, and, at the most extreme end, eating disorders, which contribute to the death of more people than any other mental illness. Yes, death.

Yet despite this and pleas from the American Medical Association along with tens of thousands of doctors, educators, and parents, the advertising industry refuses to self-regulate or change. So we are left to coparent with the likes of Victoria’s Secret, L’Oréal, and Budweiser.

To be clear, advertising isn’t the sole cause of these problems and bears no more than its share of accountability. Parents are often a child’s first and last line of defense. If, like me, you’re not happy parenting alongside Victoria’s Secret, you can do your part in pushing for ethical, moral, responsible change and for corporate conscience and commerce to coexist. I was inspired by my daughter to leave Hollywood and try and make the world an easier place for women and girls to be happy.

To that end, I created The Truth in Advertising Act (H.R. 4445), bipartisan legislation asking the Federal Trade Commission to exercise its authority to protect our children from these false and unfair ads and images.

We’ve never been closer to real change, but we all need to push Congress to act faster. Please join me, The Representation Project, and I Am That Girl to urge your representative to protect our children by cosponsoring the Truth in Advertising Act.

As the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., has said, “Imagine what could be accomplished if young Americans were free to focus their attention on improving the world around them rather than focusing hopelessly inward to change themselves on the basis of false and unattainable physical standards.”

This dad can imagine that.