Sex In A Bottle: Deconstructing Perfume Marketing With My Kid

The 8yo Original Pigtail Pal and I were at the mall yesterday running some errands when a marketing poster at the department store perfume counter caught her eye while I was making a return with the cashier. She has been paying a lot of attention to the images displayed in stores lately, and I can tell she is giving them a lot of thought. The woman in the photo was wearing an evening gown and was very thin. The angle of the photograph drew your eye to focus on her exceptionally long legs. She was in a seated position reclining backwards with her legs spread partly open, the high slits in her dress causing the fabric to fall between her legs. The position of her body made her look like a prop and look on her face was a highly suggestive “Come hither” gaze. It prompted Amelia to ask if the woman was being sexy.

I answered that she was, but then compared that photo to one of a different model for a different perfume brand. The second model was wearing a women’s suit jacket that was open with nothing underneath. Her photo was also sexy, but in a different way. In this photo her eyes were closed and she had a sublime smile on her face, Her head was titled back, her smile turned towards her shoulder, her hands gently touching her neck. Her image gave off a feeling of self love and radiated beauty. Those two things together made it sexy.

(Unfortunately I can’t find either photo online to show you here.)

Amelia and I talked about how the two different images made us feel, why the first model was so thin, why it looked like the first model was waiting for someone while the other woman seemed to be by herself, why one photo focused on spread legs and the other focused on a happy face, and why companies would use those pictures to sell perfume.

“If perfume is supposed to smell nice and it is grouped into the groups you talked about then why aren’t they showing the different smells inside the bottle so you know what you are getting?” -Amelia

“Because they aren’t really selling perfume, they are selling the illusion of beauty and sex. The perfume isn’t the only thing people are buying when they buy this.” -Me

“They buy it to be sexy?” -Amelia

“Right, they buy it to feel attractive and sexy. People are drawn to the various scents, but the photos influence our feelings around the products and how we want those products to make us feel. That is called advertising. The companies do this to get our money. Feeling sexy is totally fine, but companies trying to sell that feeling to you isn’t always a good thing. Feeling sexy isn’t something you buy or get from other people, it is something you feel on the inside once you are more of an adult.” -Me

“You probably have to be in college to feel sexy.” -Amelia

“Right, or maybe a little bit in high school. Also, if you notice in all of these photos around the perfume and makeup counters the women are all white, all thin, all young and all more or less look the same. Women of all shapes, ages, and colors feel sexy and beautiful, but you don’t see that in advertising and that is why Mommy doesn’t like those photos. I don’t like when companies tell women how to feel about themselves.” -Me

“I would never listen to that because I would just listen to myself that I am beautiful. And I guess for third grade I don’t really need to be sexy but I would like to do a ninja obstacle course.” -Amelia

My work here is done. For today.

Amelia and I then walked hand in hand down to Bath & Body Works, whose lotions and potions  feature images of the scents inside and doesn’t rely on sex to sell. I bought my favorite oriental floral perfume and then I bought a little lotion with a light, sweet floral scent for Amelia who has no business being sexy in third grade but can certainly be a nice-smelling ninja.

I don’t mind her wanting to try on little bits of adulthood here and there, like high heels, makeup and perfume. When she is dancing around in my bras or asking to try my lipstick I just make sure she understands she is a visitor here, that the bras are too big and the lipstick too dark for a little girl. I teach her that everything that goes into being a woman is fantastic, and worth waiting for. I tell her there’s no need to rush it because being a confident little girl is equally fantastic.

People will always be selling sex in bottles and limiting versions of homogeneous beauty to her. I can’t stop that, but I can raise a girl who understands from a very early age that she is under no obligation to buy into any of it.

A simple trip to the mall to return some dresses led to a big conversation with my daughter on the marketing of beauty and sex.

A simple trip to the mall to return some dresses led to a big conversation with my daughter on the marketing of beauty and sex.

Perfect Looking Girls at Target: Not Our Bullseye

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.

 

One of my favorite photos of Amelia, from earlier this summer. She had finally earned the money needed to buy her American Girl doll that she had wanted for over two years. She is so beautiful here, but it is her self confidence shining through and pride in all her hard work that makes her so.

One of my favorite photos of Amelia, from earlier this summer. She had finally earned the money needed to buy her American Girl doll that she had wanted for over two years. She is so beautiful here, but it is her self confidence shining through and pride in all her hard work that makes her so.

 

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.

Asking People To Think Is Not The Same As Asking People To Hate

Let’s redirect a thread that went off the rails last night. I asked for community members to caption a snapshot taken during a retail experience of two toys placed at eye level to young children.

The snapshot sent in by a shopper that I asked to be captioned by my community.

The snapshot sent in by a shopper that I asked to be captioned by my community.

In short time people became upset claiming that I was hating on the toy company who makes the toys and “overreaching”. If I had asked the group to evaluate the toy company based on two products from their large line, I’d agree with that criticism. Except that is not what I did. I’m not taking a holistic look at this company because I’m asking my community to simply caption a snapshot – which by definition means a still from a moment in time.

Asking people to think is not the same as asking people to hate. Asking people to think critically about what media and cultural messages a child might experience and ingest during a shopping trip isn’t an overreach. It is a necessity.

I choose all of my words very carefully here, I have to because I have such a large audience and I have to make sure every word counts and gets across the message I want delivered.

That is exactly why I chose the word “snapshot”. Because it is a moment in time, and that is what a young child would be seeing if he or she were in the store. From this snapshot a child in present time would see a boy playing with cars that do things and go out into the world and a girl at home cooking. That comprises the world a young child would know. That singular message alone reinforces ALL of the other gender stereotypes that young child will pick up and that presents our society with some very serious limitations and deficits.

It is the drip, drip, drip, drip of sexism that most grotesquely impacts our society.

It is the drip, drip, drip, drip of sexism that most silently impacts our society.

It is the drip, drip, drip, drip of sexism that most effectively impacts our society.

With several commentors making impassioned defenses of the Hape toy company I looked carefully through their 244 page catalog and while there are really darling toys, their marketing is not. Some balanced photos yes, but hugely lacking in diversity and extremely gendered. It is such a shame, because their toys look fantastic. I’ve purchased their toys before and I don’t like or dislike them, I’m simply making an observation based on data present.

I did see some photos of girls building (Yay!) and boys and girls playing together (yes!), but I lost count of the gendered toy pairings I saw. In the first 148 pages no boys were playing house, while dozens of girls are playing house or caring for babies. Ditto for kitchen scenes. Not a single girls was shown holding a vehicle or tool (at least not in the first 148 pages). Most of the girls were wearing soft, pastel colors while the boys wore bold colors like green and red. I got so annoyed on page 148 when I flipped from a girl feeding a pink baby in a pink high chair to a boy building a red, white, and bold blue rocket that I closed the link. I went back and finished it, and yes I did see some boys in kitchens (and grilling, natch!) and boys and girls playing together, I’m not left jumping up and down and clicking my heels. Here’s why….

We should be a tish more keen to educational toy companies who do indeed produce great toys that come in boxes we recycle which make us believe the boxes don’t matter…..but this company is savvy enough to market to their niche one way in their catalog and turn around to use gender stereotypes on the boxes that go in the mainstream stores for toys that get seen by thousands more children and get sold to the masses that see the gender stereotype and buy it. As progressive parents you and I probably buy one of each for our whatever-gender child….but is that what the majority of the population is doing? No.

And that becomes a REALLY big problem down the line, and THAT is what gets my condemnation.

Also, I always have to ask this: If the boxes had photos that were racist instead of sexist, would some of you still be making the “adults, leave kids alone who just want to be kids” argument? I surely hope not. Are “kids just being kids” when exposed to adult sexist attitudes? And if not, is it then okay for me to question the marketing of these sexist attitudes to children? Even if that marketing comes from natural wood, European-looking toy companies?

Asking people to think is not the same as asking people to hate.

 

Lying for The Scale: To Hell With That

Image via Fit Vs Fiction.

Image via Fit Vs Fiction.

Yesterday my friend and colleague Carrie Goldman (author, “Bullied”) tagged me in this post she wrote about her 10 year old daughter, K:

“My 4th grade daughter told me that yesterday the kids each stepped on a scale in class as part of an exercise to calculate how much they would weigh on Jupiter. Of course, the kids began telling each other how much they weighed. My daughter told me “I was afraid people would think I was F-A-T, so I said a lower number.”
 
So young, yet already worried about body size as a reflection of value. My daughter said she weighed a full fifteen pounds less than she does. We then had a very good discussion about our bodies, what they do, what they mean, why we look the way we do, and more. I’m so glad she told me about her concerns so we could talk.”
 

This was my reply to Carrie:

“It is so funny that you tagged me on this because I was reading the top half of the paragraph and my head was exploding. Tell K that I think if her peers were S-M-A-R-T they would have thought she was T-A-L-L or S-T-R-O-N-G when she said her number. That is 15 pounds of muscle and brains she may have just short changed herself. No way, Baby! She is too intelligent to give away some of those brains and has worked too hard in swim earning those muscles!
Also, you can tell her that her good buddy Melissa was at the doctor today and I’m 5’7″ and weigh 188 pounds. <— And I didn’t fudge that number. My brain is super heavy. So’s my funny bone. And my sense of adventure. And my dancing feet. xoxo to K!” 
 

Further in the thread, Carrie said this: “I have kids on both ends of the bell curve. My 10-year-old is bigger than 95% of her peers, and my 6 and 3 year-olds are smaller than 95% of their peers. We talk a lot about how bodies come in all shapes and sizes, especially within our own family, and it’s what we do with our bodies that matters. They allow us to make our mark on the world!”

It is time we take very seriously the job of teaching our girls how to love their bodies. This body shame takes root far too young, in FAR too many girls. We have to work together to stop this.

We also need to remember our boys are not far behind. 

Why and how do even our youngest girls learn to be ashamed of their amazing bodies?

Why and how do even our youngest girls learn to be ashamed of their amazing bodies?

Later in the day someone messaged me to say I was “so brave” to put my weight out there for the world. Is that really brave? I mean, isn’t brave more like fighting fires, teaching a difficult student population, staring down cancer, searching for the lost in a landslide, providing medical aid in a war zone…..I get the point but at the same time, I’m proud of my athletic frame and I guarantee you that telling the public my weight is the by far not the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

Me and Dr. Jen Hartstein behind the scenes at the Today Show.

The ironic thing is, Carrie had just messaged me a few days prior to say that she thought I looked great when I was on the TODAY show the week before but also that she could tell I had dropped a lot of weight and wanted to make sure that I was losing weight safely. I did lose a lot of weight and I am under a doctor’s care (thyroid issues are FUN!) and I thanked my dear friend for being invested in my health and well being.

188. I’d never cheat myself out of any part of my body. I work hard for my muscles. I’ve spent years making my brain smart. I think my funny bone is hilarious. My tummy is squishy because I carried and birthed two children I was told I would never be able to have. Like I’m going to give ANY of that up so I can fit some superficial definition of beautiful? Of worthy? To hell with that.

And that’s what I wrote in my note to K when I sent her a gift in the mail yesterday, so in the 4th grade she hears her mom and her dad and her buddy Melissa tell her that she is great and she is worthy just as she is.

 

Need help with talking about body image with your kids?

I cover that topic in my book: “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween”

Marci Warhaft-Nadler’s book is also great: “The Body Image Survival Guide For Parents”

Asses of Sports Illustrated Swim Issue Six Feet From Kids’ Hands On Learning Area: A Lesson in Naked Women and Men in Suits

What, exactly, is the hands-on learning experience when one brings their child to a popular national bookseller? Well, there are interlocking blocks to manipulate, sets of gender inclusive wooden toys for free play, dress up costumes for imaginary role play, and even a crash course in sexism, objectification, crushing beauty standards, and sexualization.

And you get all of that for free! You just wander around your family book store and while you let your little people stop to play for a bit, BABOOM! Just above eye level of your kindergartner is a display of media crap that even five year olds clearly understand.

Within six feet of the Duplo table (made by Lego for kids 5 and under), the Melissa & Doug preschool toy display, and within 18 inches of the toddler dress up costumes we have this:

Sexualized swim models in upper left corner, impressionable young girl in bottom right corner. A distance of six feet or so.

Sexualized swim models in upper left corner, impressionable young girl in bottom right corner. A distance of six feet or so.

Isn’t that fascinating? Really, take it in for a moment.

Let the sweet little head of that young girl in the bottom right sear into your brain as your eyes travel up diagonally to the topless ass fondling presented to us by Sports Illustrated. Did you even see the girl’s head, or were you zeroed in on the backsides?

Will your kinder kid pick up on the faux-lesbianism-for-the-male-viewers’-sexual-pleasure suggestion from the top row dominated by Sports Illustrated’s annual swim issue?

Will your mini me find intense irony in the fact that the Sports Illustrated swim issue coincides with the Winter Olympics (where fierce, strong women athletes actually compete in sports) and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (where activists try to educate the general pubic on the prevalence and severity of eating disorders and how the media impacts our body image)? Just typing that makes me chuckle.

That might all be a little over their head, but here is what they will understand loud and clear:

Women are a collection of body parts put on display for others. Men are doers and power brokers who get to wear clothes. 

Now, an older child may take it up a notch: Women are valued for their sex appeal to men and for their bodies, but only if that body is white, thin, and almost naked. Men can be all shapes, sizes, and colors and still be valued.

Your child won’t articulate these messages in that way but as parents have known for millennium, kids soak up everything the see and hear.

The constant bombardment of these images throughout their childhood, if left unchallenged by people raising the child, will act as a foundation that will establish the more advanced understanding I provided above on how women and men establish their worth in our society.

The Sports Illustrated 2014 swim issue.

The Sports Illustrated 2014 swim issue.

I’m not going to dive into a shocked hide-sex-from-the-kids prudish rant demanding modesty or needing black sleeves over the cover or even the retailer’s right to sell this issue. What I am going to do is ask you, moms and dads, what exactly do you want your kids learning about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman? What do you want them learning about their worth in society? Ask yourself why are there no nearly-naked men? Why are there no women wearing power suits, standing in authoritative poses? Or playing professional team sports for which they earn millions upon millions of dollars?

Here are the other covers the accompany this SI issue in this particular display.

 

Esquire

Runners   Baseball     GQ    Baseball.2  SI swimcover

A PPBB Community Member, Mandy McManus Emedi, shared with me that during a recent trip to Barnes & Noble she told the manager that she was struggling with the SI magazine being merchandised at the checkout. “I’m very thankful my five-year olds aren’t here with me. It is precisely at their eye level.” The manager said he understood my concern, and could “take it up the chain of command.”

So what is a parent to do when he or she has just spent the better part of an hour looking for girl-empowering chapter books with the all-important female protagonist who saves the day without ending up in a romantic relationship as her crowning achievement and as said parent accompanies the child to the register her young, impressionable mind is staring at the SI cover getting the message that no matter what girl-centric adventures she reads she will be most celebrated if she and her girlfriends grow up to have photo-perfect bodies with which they romp around topless in the surf while men they don’t know oggle their bodies? What if that parent is there with his or her daughter who is getting study guides to help with the ACTs so that she can get into the college she wants and yet here is one more reminder that the most important thing she can do in our culture is look thin and sexy at all times?

This isn’t a Barnes & Noble issue. This is a cultural issue. I took this photo of my kids at our local mall’s play area last year:

Spencer's store front window one year ago.

Spencer’s store front window one year ago.

It is a cultural issue and unless we change it by pushing back against retailers and using our consumer dollars to follow the strength of our convictions, nothing changes. Unless we teach our kids to reject these messages, nothing changes.

~ Talk to the manager of the store and suggest exploitative magazines should not be placed where kids can absorb those sexist and harmful messages.

~ Better yet, right before you talk to the manager walk across Barnes & Noble to go buy “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” and have it in hand during your conversation.

~ Talk to your friends and family about these issues. What seems so simple may not be because this is ingrained in our culture. Make the people around you think about this stuff, question it, and push back. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it”

~ Don’t buy media that reduces women to sex objects.

~ Teach your children that women and girls are not objects, they are agents with complex lives, goals, desires, and adventures.

~ Talk with your kids about this, teach them to question and challenge it and to use their voices if they feel strongly about something. Teach them to call out retailers and how to have productive conversations with decision makers who can help bring about meaningful change.

~ Model for your kids at home what real respect for men and women looks like.

~ Teach your kids, especially your daughters, that they are more than the sum of their parts.

And finally, teach them that until we start to see images like the ones below as the routine way that we see women depicted in media, we’ve got a long way to go:

 

 

Melissa Brantley photo credit, with special thanks to Gabrielle Tenn New and Mandy McManus Emedi.