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:
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.
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.
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:
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.