Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Perez Tobias: A busy week for body-image talk

This photo of Lexi Harris, a Wichita 13-year-old, went viral and spurred a nationwide discussion about teens and body image.
This photo of Lexi Harris, a Wichita 13-year-old, went viral and spurred a nationwide discussion about teens and body image. Courtesy photo

Shopping for formal attire with a teenager can be emotional enough.

Dresses are too long, too short, too tight, too loose. Straps are too thick, too skinny, too sparkly, not sparkly enough. Necklines are weird. Backs are too low, too high, gap in strange places. The color is all wrong.

So when you suggest a dress and your daughter tries it on and smiles – even if that smile says, “I hate it, but here you go, Mom. Happy?” – you smile back and snap a photo.

That’s what Megan Naramore Harris did, anyway, in a department store dressing room at a mall in east Wichita.

What happened next erased the smile, soured the mood and prompted Harris to call out the store on social media, a move that sparked a nationwide discussion on the issue of teens and body image.

Harris says a Dillard’s sales associate told her 13-year-old daughter, Lexi, that if she was going to wear the red dress she was trying on, she would need to wear Spanx – an undergarment designed to suck in your midsection and create a slimmer, smoother, more shapely shape.

Harris directed Lexi to change back into her clothes and told the saleswoman she was fine without Spanx, thank you very much. The employee argued with her. Soon after, Harris and her daughter left the store.

“I wish I had told you how many girls suffer from poor self image,” Harris said in an open letter to the Dillard’s employee on Facebook, posted alongside her photo of Lexi in the red dress. “Telling them they need something to make them perfect can be very damaging.

“My daughter is tall, she swims, runs, dances and does yoga. She’s fit. She’s beautiful. She did not need you telling her that she is not perfect,” Harris continued.

“I hope this is shared and gets back to you so that you should not say something like that to a girl ever again. You never know what negative or positive thoughts they are thinking about themselves.”

She signed it, “Sincerely, Mother of a beautiful girl.”

It was shared. A lot.

So far the Jan. 20 Facebook post on the Wichita mom’s page has garnered more than 520,000 likes and been shared nearly 94,000 times. Her story was picked up by national magazines, websites and news organizations, including Cosmopolitan and NBC’s “Today.”

Dillard’s has since apologized to Harris and her daughter and issued the following statement to media:

“At Dillard’s, our mission is to help people feel good about themselves by enhancing the natural beauty found in all of us. We train our sales associates with the goal of creating a completely positive experience with each visit. It is certainly never our intent to offend our customers. We have reached out to this customer and her daughter, and we appreciate the outreach of so many of our followers and customers to bring this issue to our attention.”

It was a busy week for body-image talk.

While Harris’ post was making the rounds on Facebook, Mattel – the maker of Barbie – announced that the iconic doll will now come in three new body types – tall, curvy and petite – and a variety of skin tones and hairstyles.

This marks the first time Barbie will be available in body types beyond her original stick-thin frame. (No word yet on whether Ken will get a Dad bod.)

“We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty,” said Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice president and global general manager for Barbie.

Combine that with Dove’s long-running “Campaign for Real Beauty” and the “Unretouched” ads for Aerie, which spotlight lingerie models sans Photoshop, and we just might have the makings of a revolution:

Women feeling confident and comfortable with their bodies.

Imagine.

But we have a long way to go. A recent survey of 9- and 10-year-old girls showed that 40 percent had tried to lose weight. Another study showed that at age 13, more than half of American girls report that they are “unhappy with their bodies”; that figure grows to 78 percent by the time girls reach 17. Girls are developing eating disorders at alarming rates – some as young as 5 or 6.

So yes, this is a battle worth fighting, in dressing rooms and everywhere else.

Some have criticized Harris for posting the photo of her daughter and talking about the incident. That further illustrates the problem.

“She is not embarrassed, she is empowered,” said Harris, who added that she asked Lexi’s permission before posting on Facebook.

“My child is brave and standing up for the thousands of other girls, women and men who have been told they were not good enough or pretty enough.”

Beautiful girl, beautiful mom.

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