The kids and I were running errands today and while walking past the girls’ section in Target my eight year old daughter Amelia asked me why all the girls on the signs looked perfect. At first I didn’t understand what signs she meant, but she was referring to the photos of girls modeling the clothes above the racks of merchandise. I asked her to explain what she meant by “perfect”, and then we talked about why and how models are chosen, professional lighting, make up artists (even when it looks like no make up is there), professional hair stylists, clothing stylists, photo retouching, etc.
We talked about the infrequently revealed truth that the models don’t even look like the girls we are seeing. The girls would have arrived on set looking like normal seven, nine, eleven year old girls and then they would have sat through hair and make up before going to wardrobe where a team of adults ensures the models look perfect before sending them out to the photographer whose assistants are then checking for perfect lighting. Amelia and I discussed that what we were seeing was the finished product approved by photo editors, digital retouchers, marketing teams, and so on. The young girls in the images are designed to look perfectly imperfect with professionally styled fly away hairs and garments that show movement to make it appear more playful and childlike. But even the casual, easy-breezy un-perfectness of it is all is very planned, very precisely, for consumer eyes.
Including eight year old consumer eyes.
We went up to the signs and I pointed out how each model was a pretty girl to start with, but had obviously been retouched and I pointed out the ways in which each photo had been altered. I taught Amelia the tricks to look for, and told her it was important to remember the tricks because sometimes your mind would try to fool you with all of these as you think to yourself, “I don’t look like that.” The secret to remember is, “Neither does she.”
Amelia asked what the models thought of their images being changed. She stated the practice of retouching images wasn’t fair to girls who might look at the signs and think about being pretty because it wasn’t real prettiness, it was computer made prettiness. We talked about the fashion, magazine, and advertising industries, and how we can never find our own beauty by looking at someone else. I told her that beauty isn’t a competition and isn’t defined by comparisons. While it is important to see the beauty in others, it is most important to find the beauty that is within ourselves, and that is done by looking inward and at our own skin.
I told Amelia that she was one of the most beautiful people that I had ever met. I told her that inside and out she was lovely, and that knowing and feeling that way about yourself is the best gift you can give yourself. I said to her that too often girls were defined (or defined themselves) by what they looked like, instead of what they accomplish or what they know. I told her that in our family, what you do with your body is way more important than what it looks like.
She looked up at me with her big brown eyes and asked if I was beautiful, to which I answered I most certainly was.
I know from her comments and actions that right now Amelia is confident in her appearance and who she is. She is eight, going into third grade this fall. This is how soon you have to be prepared to have these conversations with your kids and start building their personal brand. Because there are multitudes of marketers out there spending multi-millions ready and willing to do it for you.
To be fair to Target, I don’t think the photos we saw today in the store were inappropriate or anything out of the industry norm. In fact, I think to most people the images are refreshingly age-appropriate, sweet, and fun. But the industry norms are the problem and when we continue to sell girls the mirage of beauty we continue to imprint their minds with the message that above everything they do in life, they must be effortlessly beautiful while doing so.