When Exploited Puppies Are More Outrageous Than Exploited Women

It is not that I do not care about the humane treatment of puppies and all animals, because certainly I do. It is just that as I sit here and type, as a human woman, my breath catches a bit over what our society deems acceptable and that there are things found to be more unacceptable than the exploitation of women.

This week we can use the example of GoDaddy and their predictable Super Bowl advertising shenanigans. The company has been spending many millions since 2005 when it aired its first ad on the big game day to promote their web hosting services. In the decade following we’ve seen one half-minute spot after another using provocatively-dressed women dancing, stripping, and writhing around on cars or old men. Year after year these commercials are the topic of conversation, usually among feminist activists, media literacy folks, and maybe a few angry parents who thought the Super Bowl was supposed to be a family show.

A GoDaddy advertising yearbook.

A GoDaddy advertising yearbook.


For 2015’s Super Bowl ad GoDaddy finally caught on to what the beer companies discovered a while ago: People love animals, especially puppies. GoDaddy has been hyping a commercial starring a Golden Retriever puppy for weeks and when it finally premiered January 27 the internet responded quickly and furiously. With 42,428 signatures at the time of publishing this piece the pro-puppy petition on change.org demanding GoDaddy pull their ad is impressive. Swift consumer outrage aggregated in under 24 hours sends the very clear message they are not buying what they are being sold.

Spokeswoman Danica Patrick plays along with GoDaddy's shenanigans.

Spokeswoman Danica Patrick plays along with GoDaddy’s shenanigans.


And the same day it was released GoDaddy announced it would pull the ad and not air it this Sunday. Of course, you probably guessed correctly that GoDaddy has another thirty second commercial submitted, approved, and ready to go, so it would seem they never intended to air this puppy ad to begin with and instead counted on the free publicity it successfully earned them. The change.org petition was not for nothing, but GoDaddy already had this offensive drive planned out well in advance.

So while we can all agree that puppy mills are terrible, and that GoDaddy would have been so much more clever to use the puppy commercial but instead rewrite the ending to show a couple of kids who run an internet business from their garage shipping pet supplies to families with newly-adopted pups from the Humane Society…….

Can we also agree that the sanctioned sexual exploitation of women that has been habitually approved by both the industry and general public be more outrageous to the public than a puppy being sold online and unsafely transported in a van driven by Danica Patrick?

Because while I love both of the rescue dogs my family owns, I love more the natural born right females hold to be seen as full human beings and something more than sex objects for men.  So it bothers me more than a bit that a fictitious sale of a puppy earns more public outrage than the real, actually-happened sexualization of women for profit.

We’re listening, message received alright.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths… Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  -Source

When we consider that all Super Bowl ads must be submitted and approved by the NFL and the network broadcaster, and that half of the NFL fan base is female, one starts to wonder why it is acceptable to use women’s breasts and commodified sexuality to sell internet domain registrations. Or, anything really.

It has been found acceptable because our society’s majority finds it is acceptable to use sexually desirable women as objects to earn companies money. Sometimes the women are sexually objectified similar to the GoDaddy style and sometimes the woman are actually turned into an object like Fiat has shown us.

During this commercial we see part of a woman's body turned into a billboard.

During this commercial we see part of a woman’s body turned into a billboard.


The vast majority of ads use objectified, sexualized women to sell a product or service. As research has taught us, the first act of violence against a woman is to remove her humanity and turn her into an object. The Super Bowl commercial breaks are like Oscar night for advertisers and this year half-minute spots go for $4.5 million.  Think about that while you watch the NFL’s anti-domestic violence PSA that will air as it tries to clean up its image around how its players, fans, and advertisers respect and value the humanity of women. Let me know if you see any hypocrisy there.

Should the NFL address the very serious issue of domestic violence against women during the Super Bowl? Absolutely, given the press leading up to the event, the enormous national audience for Sunday’s game, and the celebrity power and influence star players hold in society.

Let’s just remember after the game ends, a woman’s dignity, worth, and safety still have value. When we see that compromised, we should muster the outrage we feel over mistreated puppies and demand respect and safety for women, too.


Learn more about the NFL campaign against domestic violence here: NoMore.org

1.800.799.SAFE (7233) is the National Domestic Violence hotline number.

Learn more about safe and responsible pet adoption from the American Humane Association here: Buying vs Adopting

Learn more about how the sexualization of women in media hurts all of us here: Miss Representation   and  Killing Us Softly


Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: www.pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).




Artistic Expression Does Not Pedophilia Make

The new video by musical artist Sia, director Daniel Askill and choreographer Ryan Heffington for Sia’s emotional song “Elastic Heart” starring actor Shia LaBeouf and child dance star Maddie Ziegler has been called a “poetic cage battle” the singer sets up as “two warring ‘sia’ self states”. And it has people stirred up and shouting accusations of pedophilia. It may be the age and gender difference. It may be the nude bodysuits meant to showcase the choreography without distraction. It may be that people are so unfamiliar to the type of deep art Sia creates and with viewing raw, poetic, primal dance that they do not recognize art when they see it.

In the heat of the "Elastic Heart" cage battle.

In the heat of the “Elastic Heart” cage battle.


But to call it pedophilia.

I am not comfortable with this.

It is critically important that we act as a village around our children and as a society condemn pedophilia and other child-focused sexual predilections and regard them as taboo.   (cc: toy companies and tween clothing brands who make millions off of corporate pedophilia with hyper-sexualized apparel and products as you groom children into becoming cradle-to-grave consumers)

It is equally critical we allow girls to have relationships with people outside of sexual categorizations: Pedophilia – Lolita – Slut. Or the seemingly less dangerous: Little Girlfriend – Future Heart breaker – Playground Crush – Future Wife – Future Stripper.  When we sexualize the motives, relationships, and bodies of girls as they move through life we cut short their ability to experience the full scope of human interaction.

Girls are not sexual objects. A girl’s identity does not come from nor should it be framed by her status to a male in an actual or more often times perceived sexual relationship.

Similarly, when we label every interaction between a grown man and a girl child with a knee jerk “pedophilia” cry, we criminalize men on the sole nature of their biological sex. This not only creates a false and unnecessary air of suspicion around men who harbor no ill intent toward our children, it robs girls of half the population that could have been a teacher, mentor, loving family member, coach, or fellow artist to her.

This I identified with immediately: that sense of wonder, tenderness, abject fear, and bewilderment you feel when your loved one afflicted with mental illness is asleep before you.

This I identified with immediately: that sense of wonder, tenderness, abject fear, and bewilderment you feel when your loved one afflicted with mental illness is asleep before you.

We must understand what pedophilia truly is, what it looks like, and what it isn’t. When we cry wolf with ‘pedophilia’ too easily we undermine efforts to stop true child exploitation and abuse. This isn’t that.

This performance is not pedophilia. This dance is not sexual. The human form is not always sexual. Nudity is not always sexual. Rather, nude body suits meant specifically to create a blank canvas for the dance to play out instead of highlight the dancers are not sexual (in this context). Interactions between a male and female are not always sexual. A girl moving her body is not always for the sake of sexual titillation.

A girl has the right to take up space with her body. Move her body. Express raw emotion with her body. Create art with her body.

People do not have the right to always sexualize that. Any of that.

Pedophilia – I don’t think that word means what people think it means. By definition is a psychiatric disorder in which a post-pubescent teen over the age of 16 or adult has a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children, usually under the age of 11 years old but as old as 13 years old. More common in men than women, it affects less than 5% of the population. Pedophilia can have comorbidity with other psychopathologies and does not always lead to child molestation.

Or music videos.

Sia’s issues the following statement: “I anticipated some ‘pedophelia!!!’ Cries for this video. All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play these two warring ‘sia’ self states. I apologize to those who feel triggered by ?#?ElasticHeart.? My intention was to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody.”

Sia’s statement helps us to understand the two dancers represent the two battling sides of herself, possibly referring to mental illness. We see a precursor to this in the “Chandelier” video, in which Maddie Ziegler gives an equally haunting and gorgeous performance. “Elastic Heart” is a continuation of that battle. It is the self fighting against self. It has also been interpreted as a sibling or parent/child relationship. As someone who parents a child with anxiety, I immediately recognized and identified with the struggle, heart ache, exhaustion, fear, and unconditional love Shia LaBeouf portrays in such a soulful way toward the girl, in all her many emotional states. Maddie Ziegler is….beyond. Clearly she is a gifted child whose talent in dance and depth of emotion extends far, far past her twelve years of age. During a conversation with friends, several who deal with mental illness said they immediately connected with Maddie’s portion of this story.

And that is all we have here, folks. A story crafted by a group of artists. It was suggested in conversation to me that the sex of either performer could be changed but the dance kept the same and the story would endure.

The sexualization of girls is a significant and massive continuum we need to continue to talk about and stand up to. Part of that fight is making sure that anytime a girl takes up space with her body she is not stigmatized into a premature and erroneous sex object paradigm.

A moment where unconditional love and a tearing of the selves takes place.

A moment where unconditional love and a tearing of the selves takes place.

“Elastic Heart”

And another one bites the dust
Oh why can I not conquer love?
And I might have thought that we were one
Wanted to fight this war without weapons

And I wanted it, I wanted it bad
But there were so many red flags
Now another one bites the dust
Yeah, let’s be clear, I’ll trust no one

You did not break me
I’m still fighting for peace

Well, I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart,
But your blade it might be too sharp
I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard,
I may snap and I move fast
But you won’t see me fall apart
‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart

I’ve got an elastic heart
Yeah, I’ve got an elastic heart

And I will stay up through the night
Let’s be clear, won’t close my eyes
And I know that I can survive
I’ll walk through fire to save my life

And I want it, I want my life so bad
I’m doing everything I can
Then another one bites the dust
It’s hard to lose a chosen one

You did not break me
I’m still fighting for peace

Well, I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart,
But your blade it might be too sharp
I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard,
I may snap and I move fast
But you won’t see me fall apart
‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart

I’ve got an elastic heart

Thank you MaryEllen, Pearl, Debra, Imelda, Courtney, Gabrielle, Erika, Brystan, Leland, Emily, Laura, Miranda, Casey, Kerry, Christine, Jess, Tyler, Bil, Christina, Mike, Hayley, Brandi, Karen and Mary for the thoughtful discussion today.

Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com. Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: http://pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).

Men and Women in Media: A Big Difference

“When we first started, I thought this isn’t going to be as biased as we think….but when you look at the wall, the two sides are utterly different. The men are nearly all active, doing things. Not posed….the women are all passive. It’s all about how [the women] look.
When I look at the men’s side, I see real life. But when I look at the women’s side, it doesn’t seem real. It’s all manufactured.”

This video is for a petition calling to end an exploitative page in a popular British paper, but the message in the video applies to us all. Women are used as ornaments instead of being shown as instruments. Men are active, display a range of emotion, and are clothed power holders and power brokers. Women are nearly naked and either smiling or pouting.

These images are not unique to tabloids, we see similar in all forms of media and advertising. When we are exposed to this message over and over and over and over again, it becomes harder and harder to ignore or fight back against.

Now imagine you’re a child.

"The Experiment" wall created by the No More Page 3 Team.

“The Experiment” wall created by the No More Page 3 Team.

Watch the full five and a half minute video below:

(Thanks We Are More blog for the link!)



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.

Strippers, Pole Dancers, and Rape as a Bedtime Story For My Eight Year Old

My friends, you know how I go on and on every day about how sexualization impacts children and introduces them to concepts of adult sexuality before they are ready and able to understand these things? And how this sexualization can disrupt their healthy emotional development, impact their emerging sexuality and weaken their self esteem? And that we have to give our kids a solid foundation of our family’s values and help them build a strong sense of personal brand because our culture and the media are going to throw things at them that you don’t want to stick?

My second grader learned all about stripping at school today.

My second grader learned all about stripping at school today.

Well tonight at bedtime the 8yo Original Pigtail Pal Amelia began asking me her litany of questions like she does every night, except tonight she was asking about a topic that was discussed between three of her classmates and her during work time today at school. The conversation began between these second graders with one of the girls announcing she wants to grow up to be a stripper at a bar. The other two girls then began discussing the merits of pole dancing, as in how to work the pole to earn money. My daughter had no idea what they were talking about. Then the girls began talking about girls being forced to have sex against their will.

Second grade, people. Before the OPP got up to go to bed we were talking about the Tooth Fairy, whom she still believes in. During tuck in time I was answering her questions accurately because I believe if the child is able to ask the question she should be respected with an age-appropriate answer. So tonight that was a chat about what strippers really do. Ten minutes prior we were discussing the TOOTH FAIRY! I just……I can’t…….because……Oy. Just, oy.

So here’s the silver lining, and actually, there are two:
1. One of the girls said, “Don’t tell your mom about any of this.” I have taught Amelia since the age of 3 that anytime someone says that to her it is an unsafe secret and she needs to tell me as soon as she can and she will never be in trouble for doing so. Amelia told me she had a bad feeling in her stomach when the other girls were talking about these things and I said I was proud of her for listening to her tummy voice.

2. Upon me explaining to my eight year old what these words meant that her friends had taught her at school — stripping, pole dancing, and rape — and dying a bit inside that my little girl has to now have this kind of knowledge, she gave me perspective like she always does that makes me believe in the unfaltering strength of a girl’s heart when we raise them right.
She told me stripping was the dumbest thing she had ever heard of and that she would never in her life do that. And I quote: “That is disrespectful to yourself and your body.” Drop. Mic.

I am PISSED that I had to explain these things to my young child tonight. Pissed. But you know what else I am? Sad. Sad because my fierce little girl has me to guide, educate, and protect her. She came to me with the unhealthy secret because she knows that she can trust me and that I will always tell her the truth. But the other girls from this story most likely do not have that, and out of everything you just read, that is what is the biggest shame of all.


**Quick Update: During our PPBB Facebook Community discussion about this I assured people that I had contact the teacher and principal at Amelia’s school, who were immediately responsive.

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.



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.

Reframe the Campaign: Barbie, Sport Illustrated, and Your Daughter

The pairing of Barbie and the SI swim issue has been highly controversial. I see it as a teaching moment.

The pairing of Barbie and the SI swim issue has been highly controversial. I see it as a teaching moment.

The Sports Illustrated Swim issue has paired up with Mattel’s Barbie for its 50th anniversary.  The magazine hits newsstands today with a feature on Barbie in a celebration of the iconic women who launched careers from SI’s sandy pages. In 1959 Barbie launched her 55 year legacy wearing a black and white bathing suit. Since then, Barbie has turned into a cultural icon just like the SI models offering a personal brand has just as much to do with her beauty as it does her suggested accomplishments (for an 11.5 inch doll). The campaign is called #Unapologetic, the idea being that a woman can be both beautiful and successful and not have to apologize for either.

Good idea, great idea actually, yet perhaps not the right vehicle to deliver the attempted message that women can have agency over their lives and be beautiful and successful without having to answer to anyone. Many people are extremely upset and concerned about a child’s toy appearing in an issue of a magazine meant to sexually objectify women for the male gaze.

People keep asking me “Are you going after this??” and my answer to them is “Not in the way you think”. Let me explain why.

As I spent the weekend thinking about this campaign my head didn’t explode in the way I have become accustomed to it doing when these big stories pop up in the national media every few months or so. I saw some interesting aspects from this marketing campaign I thought were actually useful, namely that the scope of this means the potential of reaching thousands of families who had never thought of these issues before are thinking about them now that they are faced with the clear juxtaposition of their young daughter’s (or son’s) Barbie doll being in a magazine that is a buffet of Photoshopped breasts and asses. Maybe a lot of folks don’t think about the fact that these models (or Barbie) are larger than their “fashion icon” status and that girls’ play with Barbie extends beyond weddings and fashion shows. Girls’ play also focuses on adventure and exploring all kinds of careers. Barbie, to her hype-feminized credit, has had 150 careers. I think it is high time we give our girls a little more credit, too.

Let’s be clear about the most important part of this story from a parenting aspect: Mattel paid SI an undisclosed amount of money for this campaign to run and it just so happens to coincide with the New York Toy Fair at a time when Barbie sales are down 13%. That means something, and it should not be overlooked. It means that Mattel is looking for ways to connect with consumers in order to boost Barbie’s sales and in the court of public opinion the verdict they have soundly received is, “Stop sexualizing our girls and selling them unrealistic beauty standards as their ultimate goal.”

Perhaps this is Mattel’s “Sexy Merida Moment”, when a company unsuspectingly receives massive consumer backlash as savvy parents now educated on the harms of sexualization in childhood tell media content creators, “ENOUGH!”

The media kids consume is important. But Barbie is 11.5 inches of plastic. YOU are their parent. Be more awesome than Barbie.

The media kids consume is important. But Barbie is 11.5 inches of plastic. YOU are their parent. Be more awesome than Barbie.

Everyone has given their opinion on the campaign, so I don’t really feel the need to add my voice in that way. I can rehash stats about women appearing on SI’s cover only 66 times in 57 years, we can (and should!) have long talks about body image and the media’s perpetual push of a narrowly-defined largely-unattainable version of beauty that is sold to females of all ages, we could rage about the blurring of taboo when a child’s toy appears on a magazine’s soft porn issue originally created to compete with Playboy’s early success, and we can talk about why smart and beautiful women would need a sexualized SI springboard to jump to fame and success in the first place.

We could talk. Or we could do.

What I am interested in is telling parents, “Look, the campaign is here like it or not and from a marketing perspective for a brand that has multiple audiences it isn’t a stupid move. But it is your responsibility to reframe this message for your daughter and it is your responsibility to empower her.”  Mattel’s ultimate goal is to make a profit. As a parent to a daughter, your ultimate goal is to raise a girl with a foundation that allows her to grow into a confidant, strong, intelligent, radiant young woman. If you are the parent to a son, it is your responsibility to teach him that objectification is wrong and that girls/women are equals who are capable of a great many things.

Everyone has been talking about this story since it was released a week ago. People in the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies Facebook Community are talking about it and using shrewd media literacy skills to break it down. At the end of the day, I’d rather parents focus on what they can pull from the campaign and change the conversation around Barbie.

What the campaign is trying to get at is that a girl or woman is more than the sum of her parts. What they are trying to say is that a girl’s or woman’s worth extends beyond her beauty.  The SI icons they are celebrating are each smart business women with lasting brands that stretch far beyond the pages of SI and that is what parents should be focusing on with their daughters. I may not love everything about Barbie, but at the same time a parent is hard pressed to find another doll that is dressed as a computer engineer, astronaut, surfer, president, teacher, etc. and Barbie isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

What I really like behind the campaign is the idea of not having to apologize for being beautiful and successful, and that a girl/woman can be both at the same time. And while Barbie does undeniably fit the mold for “beauty” in our culture, parents can teach their daughter(s) that Barbie is only one type of beauty and the family/child defines beauty on their own terms because we don’t all look like Barbie. Beauty comes from our thoughts, our actions, our relationship with others. Maybe the world sees us as pretty, maybe it doesn’t, but that does not define nor take away the beauty we see in ourselves and share with others.

I also feel this campaign offers some play ideas that creative parents can siphon off because in all honesty,  we have to be the ones leading the charge of giving girls more credit because we know how wicked smart and creative they are.

Some of the play ideas (with our without Barbie) for your daughter are:
– Pretend she is the editor of a magazine (Forbes, Time, Working Mother, Popular Science, New Moon Girls) and has to design an empowering campaign for girls featuring Barbie or a successful woman for her career(s), independence, political ambitions, activism, etc. Would she conduct interviews? Take photos? Create a social media campaign? Teach her how to create her own media, how to tell stories, and how to use her voice.

– Pretend she is the director of the beach photo shoot (she doesn’t need to see the magazine to do this). A trip to the library might be in order to look at travel books to scout locations, and then a Google search at home to check on weather conditions and currency rates. She could establish a budget for the shoot, draw up a passport and foreign money, design a contract for Barbie, plan beach activities for the shoot (soccer, horse back riding, surfing), and then construct an airplane out of boxes or couch cushions. When her play is focused on girls doing things and being agents over their own stories, the concept of girls being objects will feel out of place to her as she grows.

– Pretend she is the icon being celebrated during the anniversary of a women’s publication or as an inaugural figure in the United States’ first ever American Women in History national holiday. Have her write a piece of creative fiction on her lifetime of achievement or a speech she would give at her alma matter. Design a community service event she is the guest of honor for and employ all of her Barbies into the planning and carrying out of that event. Design the dress (or power suit) she would wear to attend the White House dinner hosted by the Madame President of the United States and the first spouse honoring all of the living, amazing American heroines.

– Pretend there was a ship wreck as the team was leaving the photo shoot locale and Barbie is now stranded on an island. What wilderness skills can she employ to survive until Pilot Barbie comes to her aid? Maybe she has to use her experience as an Army battlefield nurse to triage some survivors of the crash and protect all of them until help arrives. Maybe she builds a giant tree house like Swiss Family Robinson or builds her own boat from trees and rescues everyone her damn self.

– If you allow the conversation to stop at the bikinis (or lack thereof), you are a part of the problem not the solution. If your child has seen the magazine, talk about the icons presented but then use the women’s own websites or Google/Wikipedia to learn more about their careers instead of staring at their bikini bodies. Talk about what challenges these women might face if everyone is always focused on how she looks as opposed to what she thinks or does. Question if women always have to look sexy? Talk about what sexy means and who defines it. Talk about struggles the women featured may have overcome in their careers, successes they have had, or philanthropic work they do.

If you need more play ideas and conversation tips to navigate media like this, check out my newly released book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween”.

I’m not about to teach my daughter she is an object of beauty to be gazed at and consumed. I’m about creating lasting change, and that starts at home with the little girl I’m raising to be fierce, smart, and independent. I hope you choose to play along, too.

Your daughter does not have to be limited by media messages.

Your daughter does not have to be limited by media messages.

Image 1 source.

Image 2 source.







Questions from the Trenches: Tricky Questions While Shopping

Parent Question: My son has been questioning who the super hero girls are for a few weeks now and despite me naming Wonder Woman, Pippi Longstocking (who he doesn’t believe to be a super hero, Cat Woman and examples of real women (who I think possess or/possessed super powers), I had no other female super heroes to use as reference). Yesterday while at the store he ran up to a box of Monster High dolls and said, “Look, Mommy there ARE girl super heroes!” I quickly ushered him away so he didn’t study the picture of the ridiculous dolls too closely and told him that “those were NOT super heroes, they were women…selling crazy shoes”. He said “They didn’t look like women” and I told him the drawing was done by an adult artist who didn’t know how to draw girls.

I’m clearly such an amateur! I honestly wasn’t prepared for that sort of inquiry right then and there (was also dealing with a squirming baby) and I don’t think I handled it in the best way I could have. Have any of you dealt with a similar situation? What would you have said to raise more awareness/clarity on this type of situation?

PPBB Answer: For being put on the spot, I think you handled it just fine. I have dealt with similar situations with my daughter and explaining these kinds of “toys” to kids isn’t always easy. That is what is so tricky about discussing sexualization to our little kids, it isn’t very appropriate to spell out for them why it is so wrong because they don’t have their own understanding of sexuality yet. What I find as the best route to take is to ask the child a lot of critical thinking questions and get them thinking about the wrongness of these dolls without really having to tell your preschooler what sexualization is.

So, what I always try to do is ask the child why they think what they are thinking. I would ask your son why he thinks they are super heroes and what powers they might have. Suggest that super heroes are famous for what they do, not how they look. Does he think these dolls focus on what they do, or how they look? I would comment that super heroes are usually very strong and the bodies on these dolls are out of balance and don’t have any muscle, so they probably aren’t very strong. These dolls are too thin just as many super heroes are too muscular. A real person who was this thin would be very sick and need a doctor to get well I would ask him if he thinks it would be easy to fight bad guys dressed the way the dolls are, in short skirts and teetering heels. Could they fall over and get hurt? Could their underwear show? These are common sense things little kids understand.

Ask him if these dolls are girls, are they dressed like girls he knows? What do the girls he knows wear to play in? Do their faces look friendly or mean? I would mention that I think the way the dolls are dressed is very grown up and that if they were girls they would not be allowed to dress like this at school and they might even get in trouble with their parents.

I think you are on the right track and as your kids continue to take in media message that do not fit your family’s values for a healthy childhood you can continue to question and reframe and get them thinking and critiquing what they are seeing and hearing. Dolls like this are probably going to remain on the market a long time as unfortunately they make these companies a lot of money. So we won’t be able to shelter our kids from exposure to this, but we have every right to raise our kids with the knowledge that companies making money off of selling “sexy” to little kids is really wrong and unhealthy and should probably be illegal.

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Mattel's Monster High dolls, 2013

Mattel’s Monster High dolls, 2013

** Important to note: I don’t think I’ve ever said anything nice about Monster High, but in 2012 I flew to Mattel headquarters to meet with the designers and executives of the brand to discuss the issues with the line and offer suggestions for improvement. The overall message from me was: Focus more on the scary, much less on the sexy. The group of dolls above reflect some of the changes we discussed, like adding leggings under short skirts and not revealing midriffs to make them a little more appropriate for children. You can see the difference from the original dolls below. Their are still issues with homogenous beauty and body image, but their have been improvements. Ish.

The original Monster High from Mattel.

The original Monster High from Mattel.

Empty Swings and Stores Full of Sexualization: We are very confused about childhood.

“Highly stereotyped and sexualized products and marketing rush our kids into looking and acting like mini-adults, but at the same time kids are given very little autonomy to wander around the neighborhood and play or to develop responsibilities.” -“Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween”

I talked about this during an interview the other day and I find this trend in parenting so curious. I think the explanation for it is that marketers and media have done two things: lulled us into being bind consumers and terrified us into irrational parents….but for all the wrong reasons. What I can’t understand is why more parents fail to think critically about it.

We are a generation of parents who no longer let our kids roam the neighborhood on bikes or trek out into the woods to build a fort or walk to the corner market to buy milk. Even suggesting as much can give people panic attacks because of the omnipresent (but statistically unsupported) fear of a child abductor lurking down the block.

BUT – we are the same generation of parents who make a brand of highly sexualized childrens’ dolls that look like sex workers earn nearly $20 million a quarter, cheer wildly for dance school performances that rival burlesque shows, allow horribly violent video games to serve as entertainment in our family rooms, and fail to shame companies and a music industry that uses corporate pedophilia to meet their bottom line.

There are not enough people getting furious over the sexualization of childhood and being fearful of the very real damage that does to kids, but let your kids play alone at the park for an hour and you become a social pariah. WHAT?!

Do we even remember what childhood is supposed to look like anymore?

I understand how marketers and 24-media do their job so well, what I can’t understand is — when did we stop questioning all of this? And why are we allowing our children to be rushed into the sexual and violent side of adulthood before we prepare them with real life adult skills like how to walk to the store and buy milk and catch the bus home. Does that seem a bit off to you?

We've removed the 'childhood' out of childhood.

We’ve removed the ‘childhood’ out of childhood.

**I’m using broad generalization because I know this community is talking about it. But nationally, oy vey do we have issues.
**Don’t put your three year old on a bus, age appropriate autonomy, people.


Photo credit: Simon Waters

Slutty vs Sexualization

Slutty: During a conversation the other day the person I was speaking with used the word “slutty” to describe the style of fashion dolls sold to girls in big box toy stores. I understood what they were trying to say, and was glad they recognized this as a problem — we shouldn’t sell a co-opted version of adult sexuality to kids.
Here’s the issue – “slutty” is an equally harmful word for girls and women. So I gently and accurately explained the difference.

Slutty = a pejorative used to intimidate, shame, and control, girls and women for actual or perceived sexual activity. It denies females the same sexual agency our culture grants its males.

Sexualization = In childhood, imposing adult concepts of sexuality and sex on children before they are ready to understand those things on their own. Sexualization leaves the subject, usually a girl or woman, objectified in way that her sexual appeal is the most important thing about her, to the exclusion of all other characteristics.

When we understand the difference, we can begin to do the work that needs to be done.