I have mentioned this a lot… but in case you are new to reading this blog, I have twins. The joys of being a twin are abundant. You always have someone to play with, you are never alone on the first day of school, etc. Nonetheless, there are also some negatives. I believe that even more than regular siblings, all this togetherness can lead to having someone in your life who really knows how to get under your skin. My husband, who is also a twin (and has other siblings to boot) can attest to this.

Where is this leading you ask? The other day, my husband and I were blown away by a specific comment that one of my girls made during a routine squabble. Daughter “A” decided to pull out the big guns in their verbal tête-à-tête when she “casually” told Daughter “B”… “Your butt is big.”

“Your butt is big.”

Seriously? Are we having this conversation? My girls are eight years old.

I don’t talk about my weight or disparage other women’s body parts. My daughters watch a minimal amount of TV and have limited time on iPads. They don’t play with Barbie. We encourage them to be athletic, inventive, and creative. We praise them for their effort and what they do, as opposed to how they look. They are too young to read women’s magazines…

Despite all my efforts to share stories of powerful girls/women, boycott overly sexual dolls, and regulate their exposure to pop culture, at the ripe old age of eight they are already experimenting with the most vicious verbal warfare imaginable. Telling a girl/woman her ass is big is tantamount to telling someone they have B.O. or their acne makes them look like a “pizza face”. Somehow they have learned that being “fat” or having a plus-size derriere means there is something horribly wrong with you and is a really good way to get back at your sister for being mean to you.

Selling Sexual Objectification

No matter how much I may try to shelter my girls, I cannot prevent them from dealing with the barrage of harmful messages being hurled at girls and women today. According to a TEDxYouth@SanDiego presentation given by Caroline Heldman, chair of the Politics Department at Occidental College, new technologies have created an environment where children are exposed to a deluge of advertising. This media exposure is 1000 times that of what I was exposed to when I was a kid. Specifically, children viewed 500 ads a day in 1971, as compared to 5,000 ads a day today. This is due to the fact that the average child spends roughly 8 hrs viewing media each day.

In my day TV, print advertising and magazines were the primary culprits. Nowadays, computer websites, iTunes apps, pop songs, and YouTube are also vying for your child’s attention.

In her presentation, titled, “‘The Sexy Lie’ We Should Be Talking About: Sexual Objectification” Heldman offers proposes that we are living in an age in which young girls are inundated with images of women being sexually objectified. I would have to agree.

Case in point, Disney initially tried to market an updated Merida, their first “feminist princess”, to make her a better fit for their princess line by giving her a sexy make-over, including larger breasts, longer legs, a smaller waistline and even a come-hither stare. (This approach seems to have been abandoned after public outrage and a successful Change.org petition.)

Another example: the controversial yet widely popular Monster High dolls. Blogger,  Frances Locke describe the doll shown at right like this: “You gotta admit, there is something very dead hookerish about these dolls.” (Read her awesome blog post about why she hates Monster High dolls here.) 

Pop Culture Alert!

And just try to help your daughter find an “appropriate” pop song to download to her iTunes library from the host of pop diva icons on everyone’s list… 

For those of you at the beginning of this journey, I feel compelled to share advice (gleaned from my own mortifying experiences) to help you avoid some of the pop culture pitfalls awaiting parents of young girls eager to enter tween-dom. Advice is listed below, by diva:

  • Beyonce – ALERT! To “unhip” moms like me who remember records and favor 90’s rock,
    indie and a sprinkling of electronica… the song “Dance for You” is NOT about dancing!
  • Lady Gaga – DO NOT, under any circumstances, use the search terms “video” and “Lady Gaga” with children watching.
  • Katie Perry – Some positive “girl power” themed songs here, though my daughters and I have had many an interesting conversation about her lack of clothing on her “Teenage Dream” album cover (Daughter’s actual words: “Mommy, why isn’t Katy Parry wearing any clothes? Doesn’t she know that’s not appropriate?”)
  • Taylor Swift – All of the above has actually helped me to appreciate Taylor Swift… God help me!

So… What Can We Do?

All of these experiences, may lead you to consider homeschooling your child until she is 25 years old and eshewing all technology. (This is not going to happen.) So, what’s a mom to do?

I suggest the only way to prepare our girls for dealing with the barrage of sexually exploitive and objectifying images hurled at them at an alarming rate is to start critical conversations now about the media. As a bi-racial child I grew up talking about race with my parents while watching movies and the nightly news. It had a profound and lasting impact on me and helped me to navigate a world where race matters.

That said, talking about discrimination based on gender is important too. Specifically, the insidious messages about women, beauty and our sexuality.

The first place I’ll start, is by talking about advertising. What is the purpose of commercials and advertisements? What messages are they trying to sell you along with their products? (The VlogBrothers have a great video titled Hypocrisy: All They Want is Money)

Next, I will help my girls to identify when images sexually objectify women. In her presentation, Heldman  suggests a 7-step test. Below are my adaptations to Heldmans questions. An image is sexually objectifying if “yes” is the answer to any of the following:

  • Does the image show only parts of a person’s body?
  • Does the image show a person as a stand-in for an object? (For example, a woman’s legs instead of table legs.)
    Does the image show a person as interchangeable? (See Heldman’s TEDx talk example of women in a vending machine.)
  • Does the image seem to say it is OK to hurt or violate the person’s body? Does the person have any power to stop this from happening? (The Dolce & Gabanna ad shown to the right is a graphic example.)
  • Does the image suggest that most important thing about the person is that she is sexy?
  • Does the image show the person as something that can be bought or sold?
  • Does the image treat a person’s body like it is something to label, draw on, write on or advertise with?

With practice, I imagine we will get good at looking at images together with this lens. We can start talking about the underlying messages these ads are really trying to send.

Then I will tell them that I disagree with these messages. That women are not objects, but subjects. We are not to be bought and sold, nor are we to be acted upon… We are the producers, writers and actors in our own stories.

I will share examples of teenage girls who do not accept the status quo. Examples like Julia Bluhm who successfully petitioned 17 Magazine to promise it would never again photoshop models in it’s magazine. We will seek out actresses, artists and entrepreneurs who are redefining these out-dated ideas of what it means to be a girl/woman.

I am just starting this fight, and I anticipate it will be a long one. No doubt, it will also be well worth it. Maybe you are a veteran parent who has some advice for me and others along the way? Or maybe you have some great resources to share? If you do, share your comments.

View the TEDxYouth@SanDiego presentation given by Caroline Heldman by clicking the video clip below.

Related reads: Let’s Talk About Race Series, on Barbie

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Boys vs. Girls, Social Justice Parenting

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