I recently showed up at the playground armed with water bottles and snacks. Anthony ran to his buddy and I immediately told her how much I liked her pink sparkly hair band and cute little rainbow shirt. Her mom laughed as they ran away and told me that Avery had selected that hair band out specially for me – she knew I’d like it and would comment on it. At the time, I thought our little bond over accessories was sweet.
However, I’ve recently been having conversations with girlfriends about the dangers of focusing on girls’ looks and their cute little outfits. I looked at my situation with Avery a bit differently. Just imagine, the first message I’m sending to a five year-old on a regular basis is that her appearance is what I care about.
I watched Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary film MissRepresentation on dish TV as all these thoughts were coming together for me. The film’s premise is how the media sends subliminal messages to girls that their value lies in their beauty. We are inundated with images of beauty or sexuality on billboards, TV and movies. We all know them: the Calvin Klein print ads, the various “Housewives” TV shows and the storyline in many movies – the woman triumphs and the prize is the love of a “great guy.” (In reality, research shows that that men are happier in marriages, but that’s a different post.)
According to Lisa Ling in an interview for the film, “as a culture, girls are brought up to be insecure.” Girls get the message from a young age that their value depends on how they look. Boys receive these same messages as well, and as a result they have expectations about girls’ appearances. They are socialized to believe that being a man means being powerful and in control.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with being pretty or wanting to look attractive. It’s unrealistic and against human nature to say women (and girls) shouldn’t care about their looks – there are too many evolutionary forces of nature at play. So I’m all for doing my best to “look pretty” and giving my daughter self-confidence in her own appearance. That said, I need to take a more mindful approach.
There are some amazing organizations working to overcome the deluge of subliminal messaging:
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to educate the community and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotypes and portraying women differently for entertainment targeting children 11 and under. These research facts are taken directly from their website, SeeJane.org:
- Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films.
- Women are almost four times as likely as men to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
- From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.
I am That Girl is another wonderful organization making great strides to help free young girls of the notion that “their value lies in their looks.” They have built a community where girls can consume “healthy” media and engage in “real” conversations.
I saw my future with Annie when a friend told me that her 7th grade cousin had “friended” her on Facebook. She went to see her pictures and was shocked by the comments. Every one was a critique of how the people in the picture looked or about the “stuff” they used to enhance their appearance. “You are the prettiest…you know it,” one girl wrote. “Where did you get those boots?” wrote another. “I love that outfit,” “You know I love you most” and “Your hair looks amazing.”
You get the point. These girls are 12.
I’m still going to tell Annie that her purple sparkly shoes are cute and her smile is perfect, because I believe in authenticity. However, I will also be thoughtful about “empty compliments” and I’ll be sure to focus on what really makes her special, especially as she grows and matures into womanhood.
Ellen Padnos lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with her husband, Ben, her children Anthony (4), and Annie (1), and her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lola. You can also follow her on Twitter (@ellenpadnos).