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.

 

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.

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.

Connect the Dots: How That Sexualized Doll Plays Into Child Sex Trafficking

It is not going to knock any of you off your chairs when I tell you that I am passionate about teaching parents media literacy skills and ending the sexualization of childhood. The catalyst for this you may not know, that my professional background is actually in the legal and criminal investigations field. Before I had my children my world was one at the far end of this spectrum — of tracking down trafficked women and child prostitutes, busting drug dealers, along with helping to solve homicides and other heinous crimes. That feels like a lifetime ago, and yet is doesn’t. Because I still work on that very same spectrum.

When we talk about human trafficking and child sex slavery being a crime that is everywhere with no community immune, that truly means it is everywhere and no town is immune. An arrest of people holding a teen girl into forced prostitution just took place a mile from my home, and this is why I am so very vocal against the sexualization of childhood and blurring the line of taboo between children and sex. Because in that game, sixteen is old. A twelve year old will get you primo dollar, have an ten year old and guys will be lined up outside the door. Nauseated yet?

You may think one is not related to the other, but when we are willing to let marketers sell adult concepts of sexuality to our children in the form of toys, that act desensitizes all of us and especially blurs the taboo I talk about. As my colleague Margot Magowan says, “Here, in the home of the free and the brave, sexualizing kids is accepted and normal. We allow it and condone it.”

We are all part of the problem if we are not part of the solution.

If your child is safe from this, thank goodness. That gives you the time and space to use your voice for the children who have no one speaking up for them.

http://reelgirl.com/2014/01/alameda-count-da-reports-child-sex-trade-epidemic-in-oakland/

The on-going standard for girls toys. And strip club billboards. Are you okay with that?
The on-going standard for girls toys. And strip club billboards. Are you okay with that?
This says "innocent child playtime" to you?
This says “innocent child playtime” to you? You don’t think this resembles anything else?

Calling a Six Year Old Sexy Is Not Magic

*Names in this story have been changed.

This correspondence comes from a member of our PPBB Community and her story launched a big discussion on our page. This is the follow up to that story.

Magician hat

 

While attending a birthday party for a friend’s daughter, our PPBB Community member endured a sexist comic bit by the magician hired to entertain the children, and then watched as the man referred to her six year old child as sexy.

Thankfully, this mom didn’t let it slide and she stood up for her daughter’s right to a childhood free of sexualization. She did so in a way that hopefully educates this performer and encourages him to change his upsetting ways.

 

Mr. Magician,

My daughter and I attended a friend’s daughter’s birthday party last week with my child where we saw your very engaging performance. Generally, I found it to be very enjoyable. However, some aspects of it troubled me.

 My main concern is that you referenced my six year old daughter as “sexy.”  My daughter had no idea what that word meant; there is no reason she should.  Six year olds are not sexy. How does a parent explain “sexy” to a young child in an age-appropriate manner? I thought the actual meanings of the word would be troubling to her, as they were to me in this context.

sexy:

1.  concerned predominantly or excessively with sexual intercourse;

2.  sexually interesting or exciting; radiating sexuality.

 I will give you the benefit of the doubt, that you did not truly mean you found a six year old girl sexually exciting, nor that you thought she was concerned excessively with sexual intercourse.  I believe that you thought it was just a joke; that it was funny.  Sexualizing children is never funny.  You never should have made such a joke at the expense of my daughter’s innocence. 

 Similarly, it was inappropriate when you put the fake lips to the birthday girl’s mouth and usurped her voice, pretending that she was talking about boyfriends and kissing boys.  Again, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and that you did not realize you were sexualizing a five year old.  Yet, that is precisely what you did.  I can assure you, that like most children her age, this girl is focussed on things like colouring, bike riding, and even doing magic trick with her friends – including the boys.

My other concerns about your show also relate to your depiction of women and girls.  When you rallied the children into a screaming frenzy, you then said something to the effect of, “Stop!  You sound like my girlfriend!” and the second time, “Stop! You sound like my wife!”  This unfairly characterizes women in a very negative way, as shrill and screaming.  Again, how do I explain that you thought it was funny to have both a girlfriend and a wife?

At this particular party, only two of the children were boys. You made them wait for a balloon until all of the girls had a balloon. Some of the girls had even had repairs made to their balloons before you would make balloons for the boys, who sat patiently waiting.  You set their expectations:  you singled the boys out and told them that they would have to go last as the girls should go first.  And then you told the boys to blame that situation, YOUR decision, blame it on the girls. What message does that send to the boys?  What message does it send to the girls?  The boys were also offered different choices than the girls. Why was that necessary? When you limit children, you limit children.

You had a lot of fun material in your act.  I was disappointed when you stooped to these levels for the hope of a laugh.  You must have performed  for close to an hour and all of these inappropriate “jokes” (with the exception of the boys waiting for their balloons) probably totalled less than two minutes of your act.  I ask that you change your approach in the future.  Don’t sexualize little children. Don’t perpetuate negative stereotypes. Don’t scapegoat others for your choices.  Don’t limit children based on their gender.

Sincerely,
Laney Smith

 

Reply from Magician:

“Hi Laney and thank you for your concerns. I’ve been performing my children’s show for over 20 years and have never had any of the complaints that you have made. I am, however, going to run your concerns by some of my magician friends and by some of my non-magician friends, as well, to get their input on this matter.

 Your complaint about the boys ‘going last for balloons’ does have me puzzled though, as I have many parents praise me for letting girls go first. As for the different (birthday party) balloon options, I always go flowers or puppies on a leash for girls and swords, space guns or puppies on a leash for boys. Boys do not usually want a flower, just as most girls do not want swords or space guns.

 Mr. Magician”

 

Mr. Magician,
I don’t know which surprises me more; that you have been calling little girls sexy for 20 years, that no one has ever told you it is inappropriate, or that having had it pointed out, you are not convinced there is anything wrong with it.

While I don’t appreciate my opinion as a parent and potential customer being marginalized, I do hope that your friends and colleagues are more educated and enlightened that you seem to be.

I have asked some of my friends and colleagues for their input as well.  While you apparently don’t consider my opinion valid, perhaps you will consider it more seriously if you hear it from more than one person in your customer base.

As far as the balloons, it is simple sexual discrimination.  I am sure, in the past, there were people who thanked restaurants for having different seating areas for people of color.  That doesn’t make it right.  When you treat people preferentially based on their race, it is racial discrimination; when you treat people preferentially based on their sex, it is sexual discrimination.

It’s beside the point, but did you notice how many girls actually chose flowers?  Zero.  My daughter’s all-time favorite balloons have been a sword, a bow and arrow and a mermaid. By not offering the boys a flower, you sent them a message that flowers are not for boys. By not offering the girls a space gun, you sent the message that those toys are not for girls. Are you the first person to send this message? No. But that doesn’t mean you are correct, sir.  Again, when you limit children, you limit children.

Sincerely,
Laney Smith

 

A few days later Laney Smith email me this:

“I know of at least half a dozen people who have emailed the magician to let him know that calling children sexy is not OK.  I have not heard back from him again.

After much deliberation, I also talked further to my daughter about sexy.  As with a lot of words that she is unfamiliar with, she didn’t really take note of it at the time.  She had no idea what word he had used; she just remembered he was being silly.  I wanted to give her the knowledge to understand that what he had said was not OK.  I explained that he had called her sexy and asked if she knew what that meant.  She didn’t.  I explained that it is a word that grown-ups use to describe someone they like a lot and feel like they might like to spend a lot of time kissing them.  She said, “my friends would think that’s gross and so do I!”  She understood it’s not a word that makes sense to use for children and said, “But, mom, he was just being silly.”  I told her that, yes, I think that was his goal, but there were other ways for him to be silly that didn’t involve using a very grown-up word for her.

I wanted her to know that I didn’t think he actually wanted to spend a lot of time kissing her, but rather he didn’t really think about what he was saying and what his words meant.  I told her that I have been explaining it to him, so that he doesn’t keep calling other children sexy.  I also reminded her that when someone, anyone, uses inappropriate words with her, it’s not HER fault.

If someone uses words like that with her again, I want her to recognize that they are not OK.  I want her to be able to say to that person, “You shouldn’t be saying that to me; that’s not OK.”

I also want her to know that I will have her back. Always.”

Why We Sex Up Halloween – A Scary Past, Present, Future

I think that answer goes like this: Our culture does not allow women to have real, healthy sexual desire. We allow them to objectify themselves, but in all other circumstances we police their sexual desire and sexual past/present/future.

Halloween is the one night that is the “Get Out of Jail Free” card where women can dress and act in a completely conspicuous way and not be held accountable for it. In the bedroom they may not have the confidence or level of intimacy to dress this way, but in public they have been so conditioned to self-objectification and understanding that sex is our social currency that this feels less frightening to them. This is entirely backwards from what it should be.

The other side of the coin is this — Most women would never give a street prostitute or stripper the time of day, so this is their night to by raunchy and racy and giggle to their friends about being “sluts” because it is all make believe to them. They aren’t real “whores”, they just pretend to be on Halloween. They can go back to being “respectable women” in the morning, not understanding the price other women pay for their actions by filling the ever growing need for commercial sex.

Remember – the majority of these costumes come from companies with ties to the pornography and commercialized sex industries. So women buy these costumes feeling that they are 1) obligated, 2) sexually liberated, 3) all in good fun. But really they are just feeding into the patriarchy that uses and abuses our bodies for male sexual enjoyment and monetary profit.

Some other posts about Halloween:

What the Halloween Costume Industry Could Learn from Comic Con

From Candy Corny to Downright Porny

Here’s Why Little Girls’ Sexy Halloween Costumes Are Terrifying

 

What happens when we get some distance between our younger selves and the sexualized Halloween industry? Author Kristin Riddick shares with us:

It was 2000.  The year (a) I decided to get a real job (b) moved into a new Westside Los Angeles apartment to start fresh, and  (c) started to hate Halloween.  Come October 31st it was The City of Angels all right, but those angels wore leather, lace or nothing at all.

In a desperate attempt to fit in, I tried to join the reindeer games as a “Brownie Gone Bad.”  This entailed a cigarette behind one ear, a condom shoved between my boobs, raccoon eye makeup, torn fishnets, and two patches reading “Stole $ from Katrina Victims” and “Knocked Over the Elderly.”  My mother would say I looked like “a woman of the night”– and not as a compliment.  It was beneath me.  In fact, what’s happened to Halloween all over the country is beneath all of us.  What was once magical, spooky, creative and sweet is now a pathetic excuse to bare all.   Why is it acceptable – and encouraged – for a woman to wear a thong and call it a costume? Let alone degrading, it’s terribly uninspired.

When I came face-to-face with a self-proclaimed Sexy Forest Ranger, I thought I had seen it all.  But this is Los Angeles… it can always get worse.  Below is what I like to call the Riddick-ulous Roster.  The 10 Most Ridiculous (and honestly, pathetic) Halloween costumes I’ve seen and heard about over the years and of late:

10.  Sexy Senorita Mariachi–Everyone’s seen a mariachi, right?

9.  “Captain’s Treasure” Pirate Costume–Not only do you have to look like Captain Hook, but why do they have to make “treasure” a dirty word?

8.  Sexy Lone Ranger and Tonto–Maybe it’s just me, but I think they would have had some trouble defeating the bad guys in high boots and bras

7. “Sexy” Hello Kitty—Nothing is more disturbing than taking an iconic children’s character and making it about sex. NEVER, ever cool.

6. Ron Burgundy from Anchorman– I’m all for equality, but aren’t we taking this a little too far?

5. Sexy Rigby from Regular Show–This is a cartooned forager. As if that weren’t enough, see # 7

4. Sexy ‘Maria’–Trying to sexify Mario from Mario Brothers?  That’s right, the squatty, mustachioed pocket-sized plumber.

3. Sexy Ninja Turtle– In case you don’t remember, these are oversized, bulging reptiles.

2. Sexy Rick from The Walking Dead– I wish I were kidding.

1. Sexy Storm Trooper– I can think of nothing sexier than a head-to-toe, covered-in-plastic, awkwardly moving, robot-voicing, expressionless minion.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I learned after the Brownie debacle that I didn’t need to show off my body to show off my creativity.  I was sexy because I was clever, not because of a costume. And an eleven-year-old girl helped me figure that out.

I started writing a book about Kat McGee, a girl who adores all holidays, but especially Halloween.  She loves hay mazes, ghost stories, haunted houses and most of all, creating costumes.  Kat’s imagination knows no bounds:  tin foil, an old sheet, cardboard, discarded art projects, and old socks become Casper the Fluorescently Friendly Ghost, Candy Cane Witch, and Preppy Pirate.   For her, Halloween is a time filled with magic and hope and belief in things that are wondrous and mystical.  Kat has reminded me of this.   It’s the fun in finding and inventing things that are scary and strange and weird and spooky. It’s about sharing them with family and friends and a community that can enjoy them together.

So this Halloween, why don’t we try to find costumes that are creative. Period. Your wit, charm, and sense of humor will speak and show many more volumes of beauty than your left breast or butt cheek popping out. Give Halloween (and yourself) the respect it so richly deserves.

Kat McGee and the Halloween Costume Caper

 

Kristin Riddick is the author of KAT MCGEE AND THE HALLOWEEN COSTUME CAPER (In This Together Media 2013).

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Kristin graduated from The University of Virginia and currently divides her time between LA and Austin with her multi-talented producer husband David Kirkwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another historical context to remember, this one going a bit farther back and the most terrifying:

“On this Halloween I would like us all to take a moment to remember just how far we’ve come in terms of female empowerment instead of how far we have to go. In the 16 and 15 hundreds witch trials were rampant. Women who were healers (early doctors) were thought to be witches and burned. Girls who spurned the advances of young men could be accused of putting them under a love spell and face unspeakable tortures in order to gain their confession. Women who gained too much academic knowledge were thought to be deceptive instruments of the devil and hanged. Female property or business owners were thought to have cursed their neighbors into misfortune in order to gain their own and could be systematically drowned until they agreed to sign their holdings over to the community. Out of respect for these women and girls (the youngest of which was only 5 years old) I hold their memory close to me on this Samhain (Halloween) and hope that you can do the same. Brightest Blessings.” -PPBB Community Member Theresa Costello

Grave of Susannah Martin, hanged during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials

Photo credit