A blogger and Mom I deeply admire, Melissa Wardy from Pigtail Pals and Ball cap Buddies had an amazing blog post a few weeks ago that I wanted to highlight and write about. If you aren’t already aware, PPBB is an amazing company that sells alternatives to the highly gendered and sexualized selections available for children in mainstream retail purchasing outlets.
You know the products – you’ve probably seen them in passing and thought nothing of them. Clothing that attempt sto be edgy and toes the line of inappropriate. I have seen them take two forms, the first being sexually implicit to egregiously young age groups, as evidenced by the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy a few years ago where they were marketing thongs to 10 year old girls with dangerous innuendos inked on the front (“Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink”; need I say more?)
Add in a push-up bikini top offering for the same age group and I am left equal parts disgusted and awed at the total lack of irresponsibility on the parts of th decision-making heads at these companies that is wholly absent from bare bones ethics and concern for the protection of the safety of our children. A&F in particular is a serial offender, touting tees with onerous and objectifying slogans: “Who needs brains when you have these?“ and “Do I make you look fat”?
I feel a burn of anger blowing through me just typing this. A&F is one of the worse corporate criminals with ads featuring erotic scenes that promote group sex and barely clothed models. This company exploits the burgeoning sexual curiosity in youth and demeans young people by selling a specific brand of sexuality. It introduces and blatantly enforces the idea of normalizing sexualuation of youthful bodies. It passes off objectification as something alluring and imposes the idea that one’s worth comes from their sexual appeal and physically attractiveness. The thong is over the top for sure, but the push-up bra disturbs me in a different way. Girls are extremely impressionable at that time in their lives when their bodies are changing and developing. It’s a time of inherent self consciousness and confusion. The first messages they receive should not be to boost their bust or sport undergarments with sassy sayings. This is irresponsible and insidious. They need to receive empowering messages that encourage body acceptance and respect for this time in their life. The sexualization of children and the horrifying crimes that have become an epidemic are a very real and very dangerous reality and public health issue. We live in a world where child trafficking is rampant, boys and girls sold into sexual slavery. Our culture commodifies people to sell products, infantilizes our adult women, but at the same time hyper-sexualizes products and services geared towards our young girls.
This brings me to our second type of contagious cultural correspondence: products and attire that are soaked in gender stereotypes and many that spill into sexist territory. You’ve seen them, for sure. Ranging from: Future Supermodel emblazoned on a Toddler tee to onesies that bear superimposed bikini shots. (WHY you would want to put that on your baby and have it simulate a sex object boggles my mind!) Last August 2011, JC Penny was at the center of a controversy involving a T-shirt they were marketing that read: “Too Pretty to do Homework. So my brother has to do it for me.”
Que?! The shirt was being marketed to 7-16 year old girls. The caption next to the shirt, even worse, read: “Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out? She’ll love this tee that’s just as cute and sassy as she is.” Eventually the shirt was discontinued and JCP agreed it did not convey appropriate messaging, but they are not the only one with these sexist sayings that reduce GIRLS to objects for consumption and imply if they are attractive enough (conventionally of course!), then who cares about brains, because looking good is where your REAL worth comes from (drenched in sarcasm). This is the message young women grow up with and adult women are subject to hearing on repeat, droning in the cultural backdrop of the media for the entirety of our time on this planet. Technology is so advanced and widespread that advertising and media are available on so many platforms, with increased accessibility to consumers.
What about this other offering from JCP:
Not only does this reinforce pathetic paradigms about girls’ focus at that age it demeans the intelligence of our female youth, it assumes that their pursuits are less intellectual than their male counterparts.
This is a sensationalized and historical myth about the quantitative competency of girls vs. boys. Recent studies have patently dispelled this fiction that females are inherently less adept at mathematics than males. In fact, recent research indicated that it was the reinforcement of gender stereotypes that had the greatest impact on performance. Girls who were told that females were biologically inferior to males in their mathematical skills, performed poorly on tests versus those who were not specifically saddled with that stereotype prior to the exam. Need I say more? Yet still T-shirts like this persist because they are somehow cheeky and many render them innocuous. In reality, they do a horrific disservice to basic humanity. Here’s another lovely one this time courtesy of Forever 21 who is no stranger to advertising atrocities (a la no knee capped models!):
Melissa Wardy thinks it is time to reroute the conversation and I couldn’t agree more. Instead of demanding corporate monoliths to change their standards, which is often hugely problematic, (because for profit companies only particularly care about the bottom line and the definition of social responsibility seems to be a nebulous term) we need to spread awareness to parents, educate them on the damaging effects. Early sexualization and the promotion of the thin ideal and a specific brand of beauty and propagated by the media is scientifically shown to cause depression, poor body image and be a precursor to eating disorder behavior in young girls. It causes them to adopt the dangerous equivocation of appearance with worth, believing that our truest value lies in our level of attractiveness and physical appeal to others.
Our boys are given a specific brand of masculinity to subscribe to and sporting any sort of traditionally feminine interests or personality traits are demonized. They are told how to be “real boys” and “real girls”. Gender roles that support the social construct of our culture are imposed upon them, and consumerism in our country wholly supports this.
We are in a tender space for our youth at this point in history. With the proliferation of the Internet and global digitalization the messages are coming faster and more frequently. Marketplace competition forces companies to be edgy in ways that require shock value to stand out, but ultimately provide roadblocks to equality. Our children receive millions of messages from their infancy about gender and few parents think anything about how the cute catch phrases may have a larger impact and contribute to stereotypes that reinforce sexism. Endless nuances in products push stereotypical implications of gender roles that are every present since the inception of our personhood and subconsciously internalized, adopted and reinforced for the rest of our lives. until they are deeply woven, often undetected, into our identity.
We need to do more than just pointing, gawking and instigating Internet outrage. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should stop protesting these products or passing along their offensiveness to our cohorts. But, I do think that we need a more proactive approach that doesn’t stop with forwarding along an iPhone shot of insulting innuendo or an offensive product offering. We need to help promote products, like Pigtal Pals and Ball Cap Buddies that combat this crap.
As indicated by the subversive subtexts underlying the above clothing and products offerings for our children, these companies perpetuate harmful stereotypes and make money off of tired gender folklore that demean both girls and boys in their formative years. These corporate monoliths embed these messages so deeply into their product offerings that they appear innocent, when they are really insidious. They make money on contributing to social norms that oppress and devalue the range of talent and unique abilities in our youth.
But anger is not always enough. We need action. We need more parental education on how to raise a media literate child and although I do not have children myself I can said with utmost certainty that it is nearly impossible to school your child on ideals that you yourself do not adopt or are unaware of
We need to foster open dialogue with our youth about these messages. Girls are unequivocally told that what matters is how “hot” they look and this is where their primary worth stems from. It devalues the more important attributes, talents and uniqueness- the core things that make them individuals.
Boys are revered for how well they perform on the masculinity report card and ostracized for exhibiting any “female” branded characteristics. We need to teach our young boys to honor and accept themselves for all that they are beyond these limiting notions of gender and in turn, also educate them on the harms that girls undergo and the mendacious messages they are receiving. We need to help shape BOTH moving pieces- the way boys are taught to relate to and view women, as humans and not pieces for consumption or viewing pleasure AND how girls learn to own and honor their own bodies, getting their power from something deeper than appearance or male attention.
At the end of the day all education and activism begins with the adults who can help to convey these powerful antidotes to the public pollutants. The more aware we become to the effects of the pervasiveness of advertising in our own lives, the more equipped we are to pick up on it in the subtleties of products and services that are marketed to our youth.
What is generally portrayed as girl power is often duplicitous and stealthy marketing at its best. Girls need to own their power not from their ability to look pretty and cute, but from simply being WHO they are and honoring their diversity and beautiful human differences. When we believe our only worth comes from our appearance, we are buying into the larger social scheme where we constantly seek out products and services to enhance our appearance, thus fueling the cycle of consumerism and our own successive self-doubt.
It has taken me nearly all the years of my life to understand that I don’t need to DO anything to be good enough. I already am. Cultural communication leads us to believe otherwise. Our girls and women deserve to be self possessed, not oppressed by self uncertainty and the insecurity the advertising industry thrives upon. They capitalize on our self consciousness. Let’s use our dollars to support empowering clothiers like PPBB who have tees that truly empower, “Full of Awesome” reads my favorite offering.
I don’t think this means to eschew every piece of pop culture we enjoy that presents even a hint of conflict or question to our values, as that is sometimes the BEST place to utilize as a jumping off point for conversations, giving fertile space to question the inherent messaging and larger social themes. Harmful elements and detrimental social standards will continue to exist, but we can be better empowered to use them as stepping-stones and not as roadblocks. By thinking critically and making insights about the media we ingest and the messages it is conveying, we open up our own awareness. Then we are able to take action and truly contribute to the solution by fostering meaningful dialogues that empower the malleable minds of our youth.