WHITNEY: Keep body image talk upbeat with children

Not yet, please not yet, I silently prayed as I watched my little girl begin to panic while looking at her reflection in the mirror.

A few days earlier, she came home from daycare with a scratch on her nose, a fresh wound added to the patches of scabs and blisters she was already covered in after a bout with hand-foot-mouth disease. Whether this new sore was from the HFMD, scratching the other itchy scabs or some crazy play-related collision, I wasn't worried. Until she was worried.

We were playing in the front seat of my car, a new favorite pastime, when she pulled down the passenger's vanity mirror to give herself a smile. But split seconds after lifting the flap over the mirror, her brow furrowed and little panicked gasps escaped. She craned her neck to get a better look at the scab on the side of her nose, reached up with one little finger to touch it and began pouting. I grabbed her up and shut the mirror in one swift motion and began consoling her.

"It's OK, Olivia. You're OK," I said. "It's just an ouchie, and it will heal it you don't pick it."

We went inside and I asked my husband to keep her away from mirrors until she was healed up. I felt horrible that she was so distressed about having a scratch on her nose, and I didn't want it to cross her mind again. I know injuries can be a big deal even to adults and even when they're small in scale, but my reaction to the situation likely has more to do with my concerns for the future than my concerns over this particular wound.

Worry washed over me as I began to envision Olivia looking in the mirror as a bigger kid, as a teenager, as a young woman, no longer picking at scabs but picking apart her appearance. Hair too straight, hips too wide, legs too short — whatever the complaint, I dread hearing it roll off her tongue when she's old enough to articulate how she feels. We're years away from that, but I'm already crushed because I don't want my daughter to feel anything less than strong and beautiful but it seems inevitable.

In 2008, Britain's Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills surveyed 150,000 children and found that, by the age of 10, a third of girls and 22 percent of boys "cited their bodies as their main source of worry."

And why? Because they're bombarded with images of "perfect" bodies in the media they consume, and they're privy to conversations in which adults criticize each other's physical appearance. That's according to "Body Image in the Primary School," a book written by Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland the references many of the findings in the 2008 OFSTED study.

As adults, we're not immune to the social pressure that implores us to strive to meet the standards of physical perfection (or the standards of physical "that'll do"). We diet, we cheat, we give up the diet and try a new one, and along the way we probably complain about every step in that messed up process. We tune in to "The Biggest Loser," and we criticize weight-gaining celebrities. Aloud, and within earshot of our kids.

As parents, we need to recognize the power of leading by example. If we're fixated on our appearances, we convey the message to our children that image is everything. By the time they're measuring the merits of their own appearance in the mirror, the damage is done and likely won't be reversed until they reach their late 20s, according to "The Dynamics of Self-Esteem: A Growth-Curve Analysis," a 2002 study published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

But these sore spots will heal too if we don't pick them. We might all fare better spending less time analyzing our looks, and our children's self-esteem will certainly benefit from a break from the mirror.