Discovery Girls’ Spectacularly Failed Apology for Body-Shaming Kids

Swimsuit layout
The full two page swimsuit article

Discovery Girls Magazine bills itself as “the one magazine that gives girls ages 8 and up the advice, encouragement, and inspiration they need to navigate those difficult preteen years.” They claim a readership of 900,000, and in the most recent issue they spent two pages giving those 900,000 girls advice about “What swimsuit best suits you.” Thanks to all the readers who let me know about this debacle.

First readers were asked to self-select into categories based on body type, then they were given advice. Those who think they are “curvy on top”  were told “side ties and cut-outs draw the eyes down.” Those who think they are “straight up and down” were given advice to “add curves,” and those who think of themselves as “rounder in the middle” were told that “high-waisted bottoms work best for you.”

This advice begs the questions – Whose eyes, exactly, are they hoping are drawn and manipulated by a swimsuit worn by an 8 year old? Why are they encouraging tweens to add curves? And why are they trying to give readers the message that if they feel rounder they should cover themselves?  (Note the message – don’t be not curvy, but don’t be too curvy…) Come to think of it, why are they suggesting that tweens categorize their bodies in way that encourages the kind of comparison and concern that can set the stage for body image issues, and even eating disorders?

Happily, many people recognized that this is super extra very much messed up and took to the internet to tell the magazine exactly why.  Publisher Catherine Lee responded in an attempt to apologize that failed so spectacularly that I’m going to break it down here bit by bit.

First she tried this:

We want to make it clear that Discovery Girls does not promote nor support body-shaming. This article was intended to show that every body shape is acceptable, not that they should be ashamed of the shape they have.

But it turns out that the people complaining had actually seen the article, so there was no way this was going to fly.  Take two:

An open letter from Catherine Lee, Publisher of Discovery Girls

First, I want to thank all the parents and my amazing readers who brought this swimsuit article to my attention. 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, so much so that I wanted to make this letter as public as possible. We want to make sure that our girls know that any article that makes you feel bad about your body is not a good article, and should be questioned.

So, explain to me how an article that you agree is not a good article, should be questioned, and is objectively terrible, ended up in a magazine for which you are responsible?

It’s still hard for me to believe that an article so contrary to our magazine’s mission could have been published on our pages. I have been a loss for words for days.

I’m betting it’s harder to believe for those of us whose title isn’t “Publisher” of the magazine where the article appeared.  That Shaggy Song “It Wasn’t Me” might be catchy, but it was not intended to be corporate PR advice. Since you are at a loss for words, let me suggest some: “I’m sorry. I take full responsibility. Here are the steps I’m taking to make sure this never happens again.”

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.

It didn’t focus on their body image – though it most certainly could hurt it.  It focused on the bodies of 8-12 year olds – how they look, and how they can be manipulated to look, and how they can draw and manipulate the eyes of others.

Nobody knows better than Discovery Girls how impressionable our girls are at this age and we are ALWAYS mindful of this.

All evidence to the contrary.

We’ve received hundreds of thousands of letters over the years from girls sharing their insecurities about their bodies. We’ve been so concerned about helping girls have a healthy body image that we wrote an entire book, Growing Up, on puberty and body image.

I must have read this paragraph wrong because it seems like you’re pivoting from an apology to an advertisement for your book. Nobody has judgment that poor.

The book, which took over five years to write, was a labor of love. We worked with so many writers, editors, and over 20,000 girls and their parents, too. We invested so much time and effort into it because we knew how important it is to get it right. Our girls need resources to provide them with the guidance they need to develop a healthy body image and love all that they are.

I stand corrected, at least one person has judgment that poor.

As much we like to think that something like this would never happen to us, it did.

Oh for the love of… THIS DID NOT “HAPPEN TO YOU”!  You DID this. This happened to the 8-12 year olds who trust you to deliver empowering content, and not this Cosmo crap.

We’re not immune to making mistakes, but we are always willing to get better and learn from our mistakes.

Let’s hope you’re better at learning from your mistakes than you are at apologizing for them. In good news it’s difficult to imagine you could be worse.

We’d like to thank the readers who contacted us to let us know they couldn’t believe we could make such a mistake. It means a lot to us, because it means you hold us to a higher standard, which we hope you will continue to demand from us.

You know what would actually be great – if you could hold yourself to a higher standard. And let’s be clear that “It’s a bad idea to tell 8 year olds how to look curvier, draw the eye down, or cover their stomachs because they are rounder” isn’t exactly a high standard – it’s the kind of bar that you should be able to trip and fall over.

And for those of you who don’t know us as well as our regular readers, our reader’s comments are what keeps us improving.

How many comments do you need to understand that body shaming 8 year olds is a bad idea?

This is what makes Discovery Girls the magazine that we’re all so proud to be a part of. I know with certainty, if you hang in there, you’ll find that no magazine works harder to ensure the well-being of your daughters than Discovery Girls.

Catherine Lee

Please stop talking nonsense Catherine. I know with certainty that this is not remotely true, because there are magazines whose editors are not at a “loss for words” and finding it “hard to believe”  that an article that is actually dangerous and damaging to their core audience was published in full shiny color in the pages of their magazines.

The fact that anybody thought an apology like this was a good idea, and that there are actually people online misguided enough to support the original article, is proof that we have a long way to go in our journey to a world where children are nurtured and empowered and all bodies are celebrated.  But the fact that so many people knew immediately that this article was a hot mess tells me that we’re making progress. This is why it’s so important to let kids know that the world is messed up, but they are fine.

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38 thoughts on “Discovery Girls’ Spectacularly Failed Apology for Body-Shaming Kids

  1. I love this! A brilliant read. Stupid, stupid magazine people!

    I’m 27 and I still don’t read bloody magazines…

  2. It starts so early. I remember people making snarky comments about the way I looked in swimsuits and certain outfits before I was in kindergarten. How old was I ? Five? FOUR? Some of my earliest memories. I never remember a time when I wasn’t ashamed of my body for one reason or another. It was either the wrong kind of curvy or not curvy enough in the approved places. Articles like this just add to the pile-on that tells little girls that their bodies are not their own, that they are decorative objects for the all important Male Gaze.

    1. I was six when I first got the nickname “jelly belly.” Baby fat or a permanent part of me? Does it really matter? I HATED that name. And I hated my belly for decades, because of it.

      Now, I still have that “jelly belly,” but you know what? When I got the idea that I should take up belly dancing, because I already have the belly for it, I realized that jelly belly flows and bounces all over the place when I’m moving, especially when I’m doing the hip shimmies and such, and it’s fantastic!

      Also, I like jelly, and it shouldn’t be used as an insult.

      I can’t dance any more, because of pain, but I will treasure my belly-dancing experiences because every single time I was dancing in that class, in front of a mirror, surrounded by thinner women, I felt beautiful. I never felt “less than” in those classes. I felt like others were better dancers than I was, but I never felt “less than” about it. I just thoroughly enjoyed what I COULD do, and yes, how I looked while doing it. I felt beautiful and graceful and luxurious and gorgeous.

      And there was no male in sight.

      1. That’s awesome, Michelle. Thanks for sharing those treasured memories, and your refusal to let others define you.

      2. I wrote a lengthy comment but it is not appearing here… sigh. Michelle, I identify so hard with what you say. I studied/performed/taught belly dance until my knees conspired to keep me on the sidelines. My generous belly and hips definitely gave an extra shake to my shimmy! And I felt beautiful and graceful in my belly dance garb =) I am also a writer. Glad to “see” you here.

  3. This article annoyed me to no end. I posted about it last week. She totally makes it sound like she doesn’t read what she publishes and that alone is a problem!

  4. A child’s primer of “body faults” and how to deal with them. Yech! I actually remember the first time I was subjected to this concept (by a friend who later had many years of eating disorders). I was nine and we both had the same plaid pants. I was taller and heavier-boned in those days, and she AND HER MOTHER made fun of me because my pants were bigger than hers. It was the first time anyone had seriously made me feel bad about my body, and you can tell it made an impression because I still remember it.

    Funny, too, because according to all the photos I’ve seen, I actually wasn’t fat until I was in my late twenties, and at age eight I looked like a seed sprouted under a board. (And honestly, in my opinion I looked better when I had some money for food and stopped starving and living on coffee and cigarettes). But that’s hindsight: I thought I was fat from age eight onwards and suffered accordingly.

    Point being, it sure would be nice if little girls were not taught that there was something wrong with their bodies whatever shape they happened to be. We are not taught that we are EVER just right: too fat, too thin, too muscular, not enough bosom, too much bosom, whatever. It’s a crime and it keeps women distracted by nonsense from being amazing people whatever their appearance. And it starts young.

    1. Oh, yeah, and there are indeed little girls being mocked for being “too tall,” and you know they are looking for ways to stunt their own growth, so that they can become “acceptable.”

      I want to go into my T.A.R.D.I.S., and give that woman, who taught you that you weren’t good enough, and taught her daughter to treat people that way, a real tongue-lashing.

    2. My best friend’s mom made fun of me for taking a second cookie. Or maybe it was a third. That was the first time I was food shamed. I was in first or second grade. I did not like her, she teased me all the time about everything. One day my fly was down. One day I couldn’t find a cup so I ended up using what I guess was a tumbler for drinking liquor with (not a shot glass I’m pretty sure) but I didn’t know what was for regular drinks and what wasn’t because my parents didn’t drink so there wasn’t a difference in my house. I grew up not eating red meat but after a slumber party the bacon she made smelled so good (pretty similar to the turkey bacon I was used to eating) I took one to try it and she made a huge deal about the fact that non-meat-eating-Hannah took bacon. I didn’t like it the bacon and then it was a big deal about that too.

      It matters what you say to kids.

        1. she did she is very kind. Of course we grew apart, she was my best friend when we were in elementary school, but we touch base every once in awhile, and she is very nice and quiet. Her mom was always like a laughing hyena.

  5. “You may not know it yet, but you are all wrong. Here’s how to use patterns and cuts to look like some other, less wrong person.”

    Seriously, when did this become what fashion was about?

  6. For goodness’ sake, Catherine Lee, a publisher should know how to use apostrophes, besides everything else. You should have written readers’, not reader’s.(I unfortunately had to omit the quotation marks which should have accompanied these two words for the sake of visual clarity). Although by now perhaps you really do have only one reader after having body-shamed and prematurely body-categorized eight year old girls.

    Obviously apologies ‘r’ not us…

  7. Wow. That is so messed up on so many levels.

    You know what I’d like to see these magazines show girls? How to emphasize the parts of their body that they like.

    I first heard the term “buddha belly” in a knitting book that actually did that. It gave advice on how to “minimize” the look of body parts that you don’t like, but at the very same time, it gave advice on how to emphasize and luxuriate in those VERY SAME body parts, and said how it’s OK to love the big belly or the big bottom, or whatever. It’s all a matter of personal taste. It was much more positive than negative.

    I’d love to see it done *entirely* positively, though. Instead of having “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for any particular body type, simply list all the ways to emphasize this or that. Half of those tips were probably listed as “Don’ts” elsewhere, because they emphasize the “undesirable” portion. Turn those Don’ts into Do’s.

    And the way to “minimize” an area you don’t want to emphasize is to simply avoid the emphasis. If, for example, you are given a tip to emphasize the booty by having a sweater end right at the middle of your hips, then you can easily extrapolate that you can avoid emphasizing it by having your sweater end above or below your hips. Easy and positive.

    And no more tips about “drawing the eyes away from” “problem areas.” Make all the advice about “drawing the eyes toward” your “favorite areas.”

    By all means, dress for the body you have. Dress to CELEBRATE the body you have, and to accentuate your favorite parts. Your less favorite parts don’t need to be pointed out and put down. Just don’t emphasize them, and they’ll take care of themselves. They’ll become the backup singers to the diva that is your __(insert favorite part here)__. And you know what? Tastes change in time, so your singing line-up may very well change, as well. And if you know how to emphasize your new lead, you’ll be able to embrace it easily, without having to un-learn all that “minimizing” and “de-emphasizing” crap from before.

    And the best thing about this style of teaching how to “dress for your body” is that you don’t really need to identify as one body “type,” or another. We all have a bust area, a waist area, a bottom area, regardless of size or shape. If it’s already big, you may not want to emphasize it, or you might want to make it look even bigger. If it’s small, you may want to make it look bigger, or you may want to celebrate its smallness. Or you may want to leave it alone, and focus elsewhere. It’s all about what YOU WANT, not what “type” someone says you are. Because we come in such an infinite variety of shapes and sizes that only a small handful actually fit the “types” these articles talk about, in the first place. Types are so limiting.

    1. You know, I’ll bet that there is someone in this community who has just the fashion-skills needed to be able to run this project. Get a bunch of models in a variety of shapes and sizes, and take pictures to show the various different means of emphasizing this and that, and show how the same article of clothing looks different on different bodies. Maybe even showing the same models in various types of vintage clothing to show how the very same body could look awesome, even though the fashions and the “ideal body type” changed.

      I’d love to see mini-interviews with each model, so we get stories like “I love my belly,” and “My badonkadonk ROCKS!” and “My thighs are amazing,” and each model telling what they like most about their body, and showing how they dress to emphasize that. Get some different ages, too, and have the models talk about how their body changed with time and life experiences and how they changed what they emphasized, as well. Get someone in a wheelchair to discuss how it requires different cuts for pants and skirts, and how they can look great by dressing to celebrate their best features. Get some people with prosthetic limbs who talk about showing off their prosthetics (if they want to), or how they focus on other areas, instead. I’d like to see this for all genders.

      We could call it “Dress For Your Body Positive.”

      Any volunteers? I have no fashion expertise, so I can’t do it. But I would buy the heck out of such a book!

      1. Michelle, I love your idea about emphasizing the areas you love… back-up singers to the diva! I’m in Santa Barbara, CA… don’t suppose we live anywhere near to each other… if we do, I would love to hang out =)

        1. Nowhere close. I live in Texas. Too bad. I’ll bet we’d have a lot of fun together.

          I think everyone ought to have a bit of “diva” in their life, even if it’s only in the privacy of their own minds. Not the “I’m so awesome you should carry me around and cater to my every whim” diva, but the “I’m amazing and can DO stuff, take that, haters,” kind of diva.

  8. My daughter has my fat genes and will be fat her entire life. I am so glad that she was never exposed to non-sense like this. Because she wasn’t is a big reason I believe that she excels at things like parkour, yoga and even running. She never had anyone tell her no. But then again we doted on her the same if she ran a 5k and when she baked an perfect rendition of her grandmas German chocolate cake!

  9. I was 7 when I was labeled “The Eighth Continent” it followed me all the way through HS graduation. Actually, far past graduation as I am 37 now and still struggle enormously with hateful self-talk and anxiety and anxiety surrounding food and mealtimes. I remember walking to school when I was 8 or so listening to some male classmates who were walking ahead of me comparing the various attributes of our female classmates butts and feeling hurt that I wasn’t considered in their discussion at all. I was not the type anyone looked twice at unless they were bullying me. And now, as I search endlessly for a nice dress to wear for my graduation in August with my master’s degree, I still argue with myself over buying what I want to wear vs. what people may think is appropriate for someone of my size.
    It started so young with me. And I’m worried for my beautiful nieces. I refuse to let even one day go by without letting them know how valuable they are.

    1. Wow – 8-year-old boys had already been taught to objectify girls and reduce them to body parts. Yippee.

      And that is a horrible name to call someone!

      Meanwhile the person they treated like dirt, and actually named after dirt, is more educated than the vast majority of them. On a percentage basis, how many of those kids have even a Bachelor’s degree, let alone a Master’s degree?

      Screw them, and what they think you should wear to your GRADUATION! You deserve to wear Day-Glo spangles on Spandex, if you want. You’ve earned it! Although, that could be dangerous in the summer sun. All that reflected sunlight could cause burns.

      Good for you for being a great aunt! We really do need to teach the next generation not to give into the fat-hatred, either by not allowing them to bully others, or by giving them the strength they’ll need to stand against what the bullies will hurl at them. Or both. Probably both.

      By the way, your letter gave me an idea. I’d love to write about a character who gets called “The Eighth Continent,” by bullies, and turns it around, and says, “That’s nothing! I’m so big, I’m Pangea!” And then she *owns* that nickname, and is fat and awesome. Would that be alright with you?

      1. Thank you Michelle, for your kind words. And I appreciate that you asked about using the nickname. I love your idea, but I am actually also a writer (my Masters degree is actually in Fiction writing) and I would rather you not do that, simply because I know there is a piece of writing in me waiting to take form that will help me deal with some of this trauma. Again though, I really do appreciate your words. It really does mean a lot. 🙂

  10. The first thing I thought was “Why the F are they sexualizing little girls?!” These are 8-11 year olds. Maybe 11 year olds are starting to develop, but 8 year olds usually aren’t and shouldn’t have ‘curves’ of that nature.

    1. I know, right? If anything, they should be writing articles for these girls to read, that say, “What to do when creepy grown-ups sexualize you.” Of course, “Run and report it,” makes for a short article, but that’s why they have lots of graphics.

  11. This is a great read, but so highly disturbing. I am sad but not surprised. We’ve come so far, but really it feels sometimes like we’ve not moved at all. My sister just sent me a snapshot of a list-style article for women looking to boost confidence. The first was “Stop comparing yourself to others because you will never be them.” Then items three and eight (of ten) involved weight loss. wtAf.

    1. So it was actually more, “Stop comparing yourself to others because you will never be them, unless they’re thin and you aren’t, in which case you should piss away all of your money, time, energy, and mental capital trying to be them.”

      Nice. /sarcasm

      1. Spot on translation. Usually it takes us most of our lives to catch on to this almighty bullshit. Some of us never get it, sadly.

  12. I didn’t even finish reading your blog. I go to the part asking if you’re curvy on top and thought…what 8 year old needs to read this article?! Her mother, father, etc. should be picking her swim suit and helping with the process. So wrong!

  13. Honestly, I’ve never seen a single swimsuit article that wasn’t enormously insulting to women of all sizes and full of straight up, can’t win bullshit. Any publication that understands how shaming those things are for adults has no business bringing it to girls and preteens.

    The shift that comes when the world starts looking at you and the process of managing its gaze is a huge part of becoming an adult woman. Most adult women are never totally comfortable with what it means. I’m sure not. It’s not a burden that any magazine girls and their families trust should be putting on them.

    Bathing suits in particular can become fashion Waterloo. Even if you are encouraged enough to try a magazine tip, you will find that most stores don’t carry a variety of styles, and even fewer carry a range of styles that recognizes that women are shaped differently. I have different curves and proportions than the swimwear industry thinks a woman my size does, and it makes swimsuit shopping a panic attack inducing trial. I live in an area with tons of lake and river sports and I love them, so I spend hours of panic every summer hoping to find some magic water outfit/swimsuit I might actually feel good wearing.

    Navigating puberty has enough to worry about. Wondering whether you’re wearing the right swimsuit should not be on the list.

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