Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Parenting Teens for Healthy Self-Esteem—Barbie's Role

Help your daughter develop a positive body image.

Source: Mattel/Handout-Reuters

“Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat,” said a six-year-old in a testing room at Mattel offices. Mattel was trying out its new line of Barbies and the six-year-old was referring to the new curvy Barbie before her. The other young girls, between 6 and 8 years old, “erupt in laughter,” Eliana Dockterman reports in her Time cover story: “Barbie’s Got a New Body.”

“It’s a sign that even kids as young as 6 or 7 are already conditioned for a particular silhouette in their dolls,” Dockterman writes. One focus group mother said, “she prefers buying My Little Pony toys [for her daughter] to avoid the body image issue altogether.”

Whether or not the new Tall, Petite, or Curvy Barbies help regain Barbie’s iconic position in the doll world is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that by the time girls reach their teen years body image is uppermost on their minds, something Lisa Damour, Ph.D. discusses in her new book, UNTANGLED: Guiding Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.

A Confusing Culture for Girls

In a chapter titled “Entering the Romantic World,” Dr. Damour explains, “It’s bad enough that our culture dictates confusing terms to girls. It is even worse that these messages, especially ones that emphasize the sexual objectification of girls [read Barbie], actually influence girls’ thoughts and actions, as well as their mental and physical health. …Compared to girls who question chauvinism, girls who accept media’s sexist messages are less likely to take necessary steps to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections and are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.”

Compounding the worry for parents and teenagers’ concern about body image is, as we all know, the persistent and vast amount of emphasis on thinness. Barbie alone has influenced girls (and the toy market) for 57 years. “Barbie just wasn’t sustainable.” At least not in her original shape as Sarah Miller suggests in her humorous Time piece, “Ken Speaks: ‘I Will Always Love Barbie, No Matter Her Size.’” But changes and additions to the iconic Barbie somehow don’t seem sufficient to lessen the challenges parents of teenage girls will face. Dr. Damour, director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, expertly guides in the touchiest areas of development and social difficulties faced by parents of daughters.

Parents hope that their daughters will make smart decisions and nowhere is that more important than choices about their health. “Telling your daughter how to manage some of the most personal aspects of her life can inspire, if not provoke, her to want to do the opposite,” notes Dr. Damour.

When their teen is rebellious, her emotions seem unchecked, or she makes bad decisions, she is, as Lisa Damour points out, following a predictable pattern—experiencing seven developmental stages teenage girls go through as they move toward independence and adulthood.

Courtesy of the Publisher
Source: Courtesy of the Publisher

In Untangled, she explains what’s going on, prepares parents for what’s to come, and lets them know when it’s time to worry—be it about popularity, academics, dating, drinking, drugs, or body image.

Guiding—Not Ruling—Teen Girls

Dr. Damour reminds us how important it is to avoid “conflicts in domains where your daughter holds all the power.” Among them, food and schoolwork. In these arenas it is quite difficult to outsmart your teen. Like other chapters in her book, “Caring for Herself” gives salient advice (and fascinating stories and research) to help parents guide teens and circumvent dangerous potholes such as eating disorders. For instance:

  • “Make physical activity a part of your life as a family and focus on what you should eat, not on counting calories or restricting certain foods.”
  • “Steer clear of value judgments when it comes to food.” Describe foods as “anytime foods” and “sometime foods” instead of “healthy” and “unhealthy.”
  • If your daughter talks about her body unfavorably, say something in terms of how well she is taking care of herself.
  • Avoid making or giving your daughter rules about food.

Untangled is like having a 24/7 therapist at your beck and call. Dr. Damour tells you how to address the sensitive issues (privacy, friendships, harnessing emotion and how the teen brain functions; contending with adult authority; planning for the future; body perception; and entrance into the world of romance) that as a parent you may be reluctant to bring up, but feel are essential to discuss or address in some way.


“Daughtering”: 6 Keys to Stronger Mother-Teen Bonds;
The Cardinal Sin of Parenting Teens;
The Perfect Storm: Twitter, Marijuana and the Teen Brain


Damour, Lisa. Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. New York, New York: Ballantine Books, 2016.

Dockterman, Eliana. “Barbie’s Got a New Body.” Time Magazine. January 2016.

Miller, Sarah. “Ken Speaks: ‘I Will Always Love Barbie, No Matter Her Size.’”, January 29, 2016.

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman

More from Psychology Today

More from Susan Newman Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today