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Body shaming 11-year-olds? A mother reacts to swimsuit spread

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Young girls can see "2,000 to 3,000 images a day that are sending them messages that they should look a certain way," said Simone Marean, co-founder and executive director of Girls Leadership.
Martin Burea | AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Melanie Dawson was appalled by what she saw when flipping through her 11-year-old daughter's issue of "Discovery Girls." The magazine, which is aimed at girls ages 8 to 12, fell open to a swimsuit advice spread.

"What swimsuit best suits you?" the article asked. "Find the perfect suit for your body type!"

The spread doled out shopping tips for girls who are "curvy up top" — "coverage is key!" — or who are "straight up and down" &dmash; "add curves with asymmetrical straps." For girls who are "rounder in the middle," the magazine recommended wearing "busy geometrics" designed to "draw the eye inward." 

"I was heartbroken," Dawson said. She worries that now her daughter "has had that little nugget planted in her brain of 'What do I need to wear in order to please the people who are looking at me?'"

Dawson grew up in the 70s and 80s, and remembers her mother doing Weight Watchers and saying things like: "Oh boy, you got your grandma's thighs." The constant talk of dieting and body critiques left their mark &dmash; something she's been determined not to pass on to her own daughter.

"From the time I was pregnant, I made a conscious choice that when she came into the world, we wouldn't have those conversations," she said.

Dawson was not the only one upset by the "Discovery Girls" swimsuit spread. It triggered an outrage on Twitter.

Catherine Lee, the publisher of Discovery Girls, eventually issued an open letter about the controversy, apologizing and calling the spread a mistake:

"It's still hard for me to believe that an article so contrary to our magazine's mission could have been published on our pages. I have been a loss for words for days. The article was supposed to be about finding cute, fun swimsuits that make girls feel confident, but instead, it focused on girls' body image and had a negative impact."

But "Discovery Girls" is hardly the only place a young girl could see this kind of content. 

"They see 2,000 to 3,000 images a day that are sending them messages that they should look a certain way, that their primary value is their appearance," Simone Marean, co-founder and executive director of Girls Leadership, told MPR News host Kerri Miller. And it's not just the media: "We know moms are the number one influencers for girls."

The impact of a culture that fixates on weight and appearance is apparent in a study from Common Sense Media. More than half of girls age 6 to 8 "indicate their ideal body is thinner than their current body." 

To combat this issue, Dr. Paula Edwards-Gayfield, area vice president of the Renfrew Eating Disorder Treatment Center, recommends talking with children about how all bodies are different, and emphasizing that being healthy is about how you feel.

Providing young girls with this understanding will give them the tools they need when they're confronted with things like a swimsuit spread — or another of those 2,000 daily images. 

For the full conversation on body issues for young girls, and how to build a positive understanding of what is healthy, use the audio player above.