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Tween magazine tells 8-year-old girls how to look better in a bathing suit

CBCCBC 13/05/2016 Lauren O'Neil

Are you looking to buy your daughter a bathing suit that "adds curves" or flatters her "rounder-in-the-middle" body type this summer? You know, as a gift for graduating Grade 2?

Most parents aren't, by the sounds of it — and the sounds of it are very loud right now.

The publisher of a U.S. magazine aimed at girls aged eight to 13 is dealing with intense backlash this week after images of an article from its April/May issue surfaced on Twitter.

"Which Swimsuit Best Suits You?" asks the controversial two-page spread in Discovery Girls, a magazine that claims to have a print readership of 900,000 tweens (median age: 10.8) for each issue.

It's a timely topic with summer on its way and, given the right treatment, it could even be useful to kids who need advice on bathing suits for things like sports and sun protection.

But that's not what this piece is about.

"If you're curvy on top, coverage is key!" reads the first bit of advice for young readers. "A bra-like top offers extra support. Side ties and cut-outs draw the eyes down."

Various bathing suits are juxtaposed against the text alongside three illustrated girl figures, each of them meant to represent a different body type: Curvy, straight and "rounder."

Readers who consider themselves "straight up & down" are advised to "add curves with asymmetrical straps," while those who may be "rounder in the middle" are told that if they want to wear a bikini, "high-waisted bottoms work best for you."

In an age where body shaming turns into body shaming-shaming with the click of a mouse, it's hard even for publications that target adult women to publish this kind of content without some fallout.

A magazine for kids, though? One that's meant to help them with "tough issues like being rejected, not fitting in, and feeling pressured to be perfect"?

By insinuating that a pre-teen should stress over how her body looks on a beach, Discovery Girls caught the ire of Twitter critics in spades — as well as the attention of doctors, parents and women who've suffered with eating disorders.

The most obvious point of contention with the piece seems to be its potential for breeding body image issues in young girls.

According to a 2014 report of the standing committee on the status of women entitled "Eating Disorders Among Girls and Women in Canada," as many as 990,000 Canadians may meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder in our country at any given time. Roughly 80 per cent of those people are female.

"One potentially damaging message that girls receive is that if they try hard enough, they can all attain a particular body type," the report reads, "when in fact some girls' genes may dictate a different body type."

While the causes of eating disorders are complex and still being explored, media influence has been linked to diseases like anorexia and bulimia nervosa by multitudes of researchers, health-care professionals and advocacy organizations over the years. 

The committee report mentioned above states that, as of 2014, 61 per cent of Canadian girls in grades 7 and 8 were trying to lose weight.

"What really saddens me about the Discovery Girls feature is knowing that for the girls who picked up the magazine, this will be the first of many, many times the media tells them they are not good enough," writes Rachel Moss for Huffington Post U.K.

"From relentless messages about getting 'beach body ready' to fashion editors telling us how we should dress in line with random fruit shapes, time and time again the media tells women that if we don't conform to society's beauty standards we have to hide in the beach hut."

More problematic for others was the language used to instruct girls on how their bodies should be looked at.

"The spread claims girls who are 'curvy up top' should go for a one-piece with 'side ties and cutouts that draw the eyes down,'" writes Gabrielle Noone for NYMag's The Cut. "Who exactly is the owner of these 'eyes' that are being 'drawn' toward tweens in bathing suits and how can we get Chris Hansen on their case?"

Discovery Girls publisher ​Catherine Lee addressed the controversy on Tuesday as anger swelled over her magazine's most recent issue online.

"As the founder of Discovery Girls magazine, and even more importantly, the mother of the first Discovery Girl in 2000, I am in total agreement with all of you regarding this article," she wrote in an open letter on Facebook. "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.… We're not immune to making mistakes, but we are always willing to get better and learn from our mistakes."

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