A friend of a friend recently asked a little girl a question: What's the one thing in the world you want most?
"To look like Hannah Montana," she said, referring to the Disney Channel pop-star played by actor Miley Cyrus.
My friend's friend retorted: "But I'd miss your face!"
Disgusted, the little girl shook her head.
"No," she said. "You couldn't miss that."
She is one of many girls who sees her face and says it could be better, who believes something has to change before she can be good enough. But she is only 4 years old.
At her age, a lot of what I didn't have wasn't within my awareness. If I compared anything to anything else, it was ultimately insignificant. So I find it disturbing that 21 years turns the world into one where a 4-year-old finds reasons to compare her body to a pop star's.
But who can blame her? She is growing up in a place where what's natural is declared a flaw when it's airbrushed out of photos, where a woman's waistline is tweaked before her picture is approved for print. Lots of women curl hair that's straight, straighten hair that's curly and pay for bigger boobs and smaller noses. Others inject their faces with Botox, then cover them with makeup. So when a little girl wants to look like someone else, she wants exactly what her world implies she should.
"Our children learn from watching us," said Dae Sheridan, a licensed mental health counselor, board certified clinical sexologist and professor at the University of South Florida. "When little girls see their moms standing on the scale saying, 'I'm fat,' or slathering on cream saying, 'I look terrible today,' " children infer we aren't okay as we are.
In 2010, Americans spent $10.7 billion on cosmetic procedures, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and $33.3 billion on beauty products, according to SmartMoney. Some of us spend time and money so we can look our best. Others feel pressured to meet beauty standards.
Plenty of people don't. And when they go out with unkempt hair or in unconventional clothes, their pictures are posted on places like PeopleofWalmart.com, where other people make fun of them. But there are also lots of women who won't go out without wearing makeup, for fear of being judged.
"I've bought so many products, grown my hair to certain lengths and beaten my body into exhaustion by over-exercising," one 24-year-old friend told me.
Other women can relate.
"We even compromise our health," said a 25-year-old friend. "I straightened my hair before I went to the emergency room that time I had food poisoning in 11th grade."
We live like this because a set of beauty standards is embedded in our culture and "we swallow it down without questioning it," Sheridan said. "We don't give ourselves the credit to be as thoughtful of consumers as we could be. We let other people make decisions for us because we're so damn busy."
When we are bombarded by ads for products that volumize our eyelashes or eradicate our stretch marks, we quickly can conclude that thin lashes and stretch marks are unacceptable. But are they really?
"Think critically," said Sheridan. "What do advertisers stand to gain by saying these things about my lashes or my stretch marks? Are they looking out for my best interests, or are they trying to make a dollar off of me?"
Dr. Laurie Casas, a board certified plastic surgeon in the Chicago North Shore, said what women are offered in the name of beauty is not always motivated by money.
That's "like saying all writers do it for the glory of being in print," Casas said. Her patients tend to be moms, teenagers, aging women and men who have realistic expectations.
"Imagine you're 5-5 and you weigh 135 pounds. You've got a nice 34C or B breast, you keep yourself in good shape and you're doing it because it's healthy," Casas said. "You have a baby, and then another baby, and all of a sudden, your breasts are no longer present. They're just skin, hanging. (The surgery is) really reconstructive."
That hypothetical woman's decision to have a breast augmentation is influenced by the way she used to look, Casas said, not by magazines.
"I don't think there's as much influence from the media as people believe," she said. "Nobody's really watching commercials anymore."
But Jean Kilbourne, creator of a film series called Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women, said "the mistake people make is thinking that because they don't pay conscious attention to ads, they're not influenced" by them. When we treat advertising like it's trivial, she said, we let down our guard, which is when we don't realize how immersed in it we are.
Exposure to one ad probably won't make an impact, Kilbourne said. But over time, what we are exposed to over and over becomes the norm. So when women in most ads look a certain way, the ads imply that's how women should look. And when we believe women really should look that way — and we think we'd believe it even if the ads had never existed — the ads have impacted us, regardless of whether we've tried to tune them out.
Most of the ads we see imply tall and thin is one of few ways to be beautiful. But "only 5 percent of American women have the body type the models have," Kilbourne said. While there's nothing wrong with that kind of body, "it's genetic. It's absolutely impossible for 95 percent of women."
It's also normal to think youth is beautiful and to color gray hair, fill wrinkles or try to defy age with makeup. But when products say aging skin is something we have to fix, we learn not to embrace aging, but to avoid it.
Lots of "problems" the beauty industry offers to solve are inevitable. But products designed for inevitable problems promise big profits. We can let the industry decide what's good and bad about bodies, or we can consider this: The problems it points out might not actually be problems.
"A lot of people make a lot of money keeping us ill at ease," Sheridan said. We have to "be savvy consumers (who) analyze what we are consuming."
If we find we truly choose our cosmetics and cosmetic procedures to look our best, good. And I won't try to stop a woman if she really wants to change the way she looks. But we cannot forget who watches while we do it.
"Teach children to question what they see," Sheridan said. "Place more value on the internal and less on the external. Compliment your daughter on that great soccer kick rather than on her hair. Commend her on her math test grade rather than on the cute skirt."
Tell her what the beauty industry doesn't.
"You are perfect just the way you are."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6235. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this essay.