My Daughter's Grrrilla Tactics: #Unapologetic

The Barbie Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover got all the buzz, but  it was nowhere to be found yesterday at our local book store. Instead, this cover caught my 10-year-old's eye: swimsuit issue

"Ick!" My daughter said. "What does that have to do with sports, Mom?"

"Absolutely nothing," I responded.

She  glanced at the next magazine over,  also Sports Illustrated, with this cover of Mikaela Shiffrin looking very real and really happy with her incredible accomplishments.

shiffrin

My daughter looked back and forth for a moment, then grabbed the  Shiffrin cover and put it on top of the swimsuit issue, blocking it from view.

"There," she said, satisfied, and walked away.

Yes. That's my grrrl.

What Do Little Girls Really Learn from "Career" Barbies?

Like a lot of moms, I faced the Barbie dilemma when my daughter was younger. I solved it--ta da!--through hypocrisy and mixed messages. Ok, maybe that's a little harsh. But I  figured a little bit of Barbie would sate her appetite (and stop the nagging) without doing too much harm. Like a vaccination, or homeopathic innoculation against the Big Bad. I told myself my daughter didn't use her dolls for fashion play anyway: her Barbie "funeral," for instance, was a tour de force of childhood imagination. I told myself I only got her "good" Barbies: ethnic Barbies, Wonder Woman Barbie, Cleopatra Barbie. Now that she's 10 and long ago gave the dolls away (or "mummified" them and buried them in the back yard in a "time capsule"), I can't say whether they'll have any latent impact on her body image or self-perception. It would seem ludicrous, at any rate, to try to pinpoint the impact of one toy. To me it was never about a single product anyway--not even the Princesses, though I'm often accused of thinking that--it was about the accrual of products, the conveyor belt we put girls on at ever-younger ages that tells them that how they look, first and foremost, is who they are. But now, according to a study published this week,  it turns out that playing with Barbie, even career Barbie, may indeed limit girls’ perception of their own future choices. Psychologists at Oregon State and the University of Santa Cruz randomly assigned girls ages 4-7 to play with one of three dolls. Two were Barbies: a fashion Barbie (in a dress and high heels);

Barbie fashion

and a "career" Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope.

doctor barbie

 The third, "control" doll was a Mrs. Potato Head, who,  although she comes with fashion accessories such as a purse and shoes, doesn't have Barbie's sexualized (and totally unrealistic) curves.

potato head

 

 (NOTE: I just pulled these images from the web: I don't know which Barbies or Potato Heads they used. Interestingly, though, the doctor Barbie I found on Amazon costs $35 whereas the fashionista Barbies are $11-$15. And one more note: I'm from the era when we used actual POTATOES for our Potato Head dolls, sticking them with push-pin pieces on which you could easily impale yourself--or your sibling. Those were the days, eh? Anyway, back to the topic at hand...).

Ahem. So, after just a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers, according to the authors, were male-dominated and half were female dominated. The results:

Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.

More to the point:

There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.

Obviously, the study is not definitive. Obviously, one doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life blah blah blah. Still, it's interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes. That reminded me of a study I wrote about in CAMD in which college women enrolled in an advanced calculus class were asked to watch a series of four, 30-second TV commercials. The first group watched four netural ads. The second group watched two neutral ads and two depicting stereotypes about women  (a girl enraptured by acne medicine; a woman drooling over a brownie mix). Afterward they completed a survey and—bing!—the group who’d seen the stereo- typed ads expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than classmates who had watched only the neutral ones. Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads. And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group; interestingly, male students showed no such disparity.)

Now think about the culture girls are exposed to over and over and over and over and over, whether in toys or movies or tv or music videos, in which regardless of what else you are—smart, athletic, kind, even feminist, even old—you must be "hot." Perhaps, then, the issue is not “well, one doll can’t have that much of an impact,” so much as “if playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”

(If Barbie were life-sized she'd be 6 feet tall with a 39" bust, 18" waist, and 33" hips. This representation was made by then-high school student Galia Slayen and originally from a post by Today News)

There's a New Girl Strutting on Monster High's Corner

Move over Monster High, there's a new semi-nude, spike-heeled, crazy skinny Sesame Streetwalker posing as a girl power icon in town: Winx Club dolls, based on the Nick series, Winx Club http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnlxmaHqpcI

Good thing these fairies are magical, because if they were real women they'd have to keep their uteruses (uterii?) in their purses.

As dolls, they make Barbie look like a before picture from  "The Biggest Loser."

Looking at pictures of these normal-sized little girls happily olding these pro-ana fairies makes me wince. I've seen the research that says girls now self-sexualize by age six. You can certainly see how that happens.

 

 

The girls are so lovely and chubby and real. The dolls are so skinny and missel-pointy and freakish. They'd have a mom BEGGING for Barbie. Nick, can't you do better?

Fat is a Preschool Issue

Yesterday I posted a link on my facebook page  to an article on CNN.com called “Fat is the New Ugly on the Playground,”  which featured a few nice quotes by yours truly. In response to the post were comments including the following:

Excuse me in my experience fat has always equalled ugly on the playground, ain't nuthin new here, take it from a former fat kid.

'Fat' has always been ugly on the playground, or any where else for that matter!

I'm not sure why this is all of a sudden breaking news.

Absolutely true. Fat kids—boys as well as girls—have long been tormented, demonized and excluded by their schoolmates. In CAMD I talk about the history of American attitudes towards fat—the reasons it came to be seen as a moral issue, a character flaw;  how it became particularly taboo for women whose avoirdupois was once considered sexy. Check out an exotic dancer in the 1800s:

 

I struggle openly in CAMD  and elsewhere  over how to imbue a daughter with a healthy body image. In fact, I've been writing about women and weight since the late 1980s, so it's not like any of this is a surprise.

What’s new, however, is the ever-earlier age at which children—girls particularly-- become conscious of weight. In  Schoolgirls I cited  a study revealing  that 50% of  9-year-old girls were dieting (check this  Wall Street Journal article  by a reporter who, to see for himself, interviewed  a group of girls  when that study came out; he talked to them again recently as adults).  But now, it appears, by age three girls equate thinness with beauty, sweetness, niceness and popularity; they associate "fat" meanwhile with laziness,  stupidity and friendlessness.

Yes, I said three. In a 2010 study researchers engaged 3-5 year old girls in games of Candyland and Chutes & Ladders asking them to choose among three game pieces--a thin one, an average-sized one and a fat one--to represent themselves. While in the past children that age showed little ability to distinguish between average and thin weights, today's wee ones  grabbed thin pieces at higher rates not only than fat ones but than those of "normal" weight. When asked by researchers to swap a thin figure for a fat one, the girls not only recoiled but some refused to even touch  the  chubbier game piece making comments such as, “I hate her, she has a fat stomach," or "She is fat. I don't want to be that one."

Again: preschoolers.

As  I’ve written before on this blog, toy manufacturers have lately classic toys on a diet, claiming (apparently rightly) that “Girls won’t play with childlike dolls any more.” So take a look:

 

 

 

Our friends at  Pigtail Pals, in a recent blog about this baby-fear-of-fat phenomenon posted a photo of how Barbie--whose figure has reflected the idealized female physique for decades--has also whittled her waist and hiked her heinie. Meanwhile, the doll's demographic has dropped: she's now marketed at 3-6 year olds (her original audience was 8-12).

 

There's no more grace period. From the get-go girls are bombarded with images of women whose bodies range from unattainable to implausible (Disney Princesses, anyone?). Even  G-rated films and educational TV present thinness not as healthier (which it may or not be, depending on how you get there)  but morally superior.

Given the mental health vulnerabilities an ever-narrowing standard of beauty creates in our girls--not to mention the negative impact fat-shaming has on overweight kids--are we really okay with letting this slide?

 

 

Polly Pockets Then and Now (and Monster High Again....)

I used to sort of enjoy Polly Pockets when Daisy was into them.  I think it was  their size. And they had some cool gear. And sometimes I'm a hypocrite, so sue me. Of course, Pollys, like most toys for girls,  had aged down: initially, for instance,  Barbie was aimed at a 9-12 demographic, but little girls, trying to be cool like their older sisters, start wanting them too and then they became anathema to the older girls. So now rather than starting with Barbies at 9, girls are done with them by 6. I write a lot about age compression in Cinderella Ate My Daughter and also how it's affected the nature of the Barbie fantasy. Anyway, the thing with the Pollys is that they are now marketed (according to Amazon) to girls ages 2-5. And those little rubber clothes and shoes are really impossible for girls that age to manipulate on their own. Resulting, in our house at least, in a lot of tears of frustration and many "dead Pollys" (dolls whose limbs had all been permanently broken off when clothing was forced on). Though we did get the occasional really cool art project out of it (using aforementioned limbs). So they had to be disappeared. They were too fuss-provoking, even beyond any premature sexualization or fetishized consumerism  they communicated.

While playing Polly with Daisy I remembered that I used to play it with my nieces, who are 10+ years older than she. And I was sure that we hadn't had these problems. So I did a little googling and it turns out Pollys started out COMPLETELY different than they are today and are yet another example of the way girls' toys have changed and narrowed in scope. Polly came on the market in 1989, created  by a dad who wanted to make a toy for his daughter that would  fit into her pocket. So he used a powder compact to create a teensy home for a teensy doll named Polly. The result was distributed through a company called Bluebird Toys and looked like this:

 

 

I'm not saying original Pollys were  stereotype-free or entirely anti-consumerist, but they were more along the lines of Fisher-Price "Little People." They look like children. And they were self-contained (though you could collect them). There was a cute cafe version and a classroom version and...well, they were all-in-all, even if just COMPARATIVELY, sweet.

Ten years later Mattel bought Bluebird and permanently replaced original Polly with "Fashion Polly," a taller, skinnier, curvy doll who looked more like this:

These Pollys were all about having the most accessories and clothing (which you could buy and buy and buy and buy). Not to mention the wildest parties. They had  more than one limo

There was  something called a "race to the mall" play set ("Polly and her friend can race through the big city and win the flag at the finish line, or dine, shop and stop for the view at the high observation deck") in addition to her REGULAR three story mall play set.

 

There's also the World Rockin' Magic Fashion Stage and, of course,  the Ultimate Party Boat Play Set (let's hope those Pollys stick to apple juice on the high seas). My favorite, though is the Ultimate Polly What Happens in Vegas set. Okay, just kidding. It doesn't exist, but you believed me for a second, didn't you?

I can't totally hate on Polly--I liked surfer Polly circa 2006. I dig some of her cars. The snow boards are fun. But more and more she has become just a tiny, hard to dress Barbie who is all girl power as the power to shop.

Speaking of age compression, I recently saw this interesting post on yahoo answers regarding Monster High. The dolls, you may recall, are supposed to be for older girls (those who had outgrown Barbie and Bratz) but they're drifting downwards rapidly.

"Okay so i'm going to middle school in the fall and will have a locker i want to print put som MH stickers (the cleo de nile and ghoulia yelps ones but i dont want to be the loser who likes MH!! HELP?"
Best Answer Chosen by Asker:
"my 5 year old girl loves monster high, but my 12 year old girl thinks that it is lame. you might be getting a bit too old to have 'characters' on your locker."
Asker's Comment:
"Thanks i will not be putting those on my locker i guess i will put a poster of johney depp on the inside
Thank you for saving me from the biggest mistake of my life!!!"
Voila! Monster High is now for 5-year-olds. Victoria Secret references and all.

Meanwhile, I continue to get feedback on the post I wrote ages ago on the dolls. Now the comments seemingly from girls themselves who understandably have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. I answered one this way:

"It would be ridiculous to claim that Disney Princesses or Hannah Montana or Bratz dolls or Monster High or  Twilight or whatever is inherently harmful. But each one is part of the round-the-clock, all-pervasive media machine aimed at girls from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price."

As readers scroll through this blog or read CAMD, I hope that's the point they get. Because once you see those connections, you can start working to combat them

Will She Design Buildings with Extra Ladies' Rooms?

Mattel just announced that it will be releasing “architect Barbie” later this year, complete with I.M. Pei-style black-rimmed glasses. There’s apparently been a concerted effort since 2002 by women in the profession into the doll’s career pantheon. In general, the recent (and hard to find) "computer engineer" and architect aside, Barbie's recent careers have been disappointing: "baby doctor," "pet vet,"ballerina" and "cheerleader"  have largely replaced yesteryear’s "astronaut," "race car driver" and "ambassador for world peace" (not to mention my personal fantasy job: "See's Candy Store Cashier").  Though frankly, all of Barbie's careers are a little odd considering that she herself is supposed to be a teenager (though maybe she’s grown up since the 90s, when among the first words she “spoke” were  “math class is tough.”) Now for a little jolt of real life:  the good news is, 40% of architecture students are now female. The bad news is, only 13.5% of the architects in the AIA are—which explains the persistence of inadequate number of womens’ bathrooms in most buildings. Women have been entering the field long enough that this is not just an issue of numbers in the pipeline. The pipeline, as with the sciences and engineering, has some serious leaks. I can talk about this a bit. Then say: In truth, Barbie may actually be better equipped than many women entering the field, since she has no children—work/life balance Barbie would surely not be pretty.

Either way, I wish her good luck and Godspeed, and fervently hope those high-heeled feet can urge  girls to reach for the sky(scrapers).