Selling Beauty to Babies

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My six-year-old daughter was invited to a party this weekend. The little birthday girl is a delight and I would have loved Miss B. to attend. After checking out the venue online, however, my partner and I decided we had to decline the invitation.

Club Girly Girlz hosts parties for young girls centred around getting made up, having manicures, pedicures, mini facials (!) and other “beauty spa” treatments.

Their website declares:

Club Girly Girlz is a celebration of everything that’s wonderful about being a girl….[our vision] is to grow the Club Girly Girlz chain and become the leading destination for tweens and their parents. Encouraging self-esteem for girls by providing an environment where they embrace their individual beauty in a safe and positive way….

Ahem. With all due respect, Club Girly Girlz, that is complete and utter bollocks. Are you trying to tell me that all that’s “wonderful about being a girl” involves lip gloss, facials, makeovers and sparkly nail polish? And may I ask how this is supposed to encourage my daughter’s self-esteem?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think for a minute that one party at Club Girly Girlz (I’m sorry, but even the name makes me want to barf) will irrevocably damage any little girl who attends. (I can see the disclaimer now: No little girls were harmed in the making of this lip gloss and facial party). But here’s my bottom line: I think that businesses that sell beauty to babies are harmful to our daughters, sending them all the wrong messages about what really matters.

A while ago my partner and I went to hear wonderful Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph talk about his book “Raising Girls.” After two hours we all stumbled out with glazed looks in our eyes, terrified out of our wits, holding on to each other for support (well not really, but we were screaming on the inside). What he had to say about the perils of raising daughters was pretty disturbing.

Research has shown that the top three messages the media (TV, movies, internet, advertising etc.) is sending our girls are:

1. Your looks are the most important thing about you;

2. Your body is never good enough;

3. Sex is what you trade for love and power.

Yup. That’s the daily diet being fed to our daughters. And I’ll tell you what else they’re being fed: The lie that boys are active agents while girls are passive, silent objects waiting around for romance. The assumption that little girls should be playing with the pink and purple “Lego Friends” range, which offers only “suburban setting” construction options such as beauty parlours and kitchens, while the boys use their – gasp – imaginations and build all manner of exciting things. The belief that lip gloss and facial parties are the epitome of what makes being a girl wonderful. And – most disturbingly of all – that it’s OK to dress as a sex object, even if you’re 6, or 7, or even younger.

These are our precious daughters, people. Do we really want them to grow up believing that the way they look is the most important thing about them? Or that girls sit around and giggle in pink sparkly dresses and are taught how to look more beautiful, while boys get out and do stuff?

Our girls are being sexualised at a younger and younger age and it disturbs me greatly. A campaign was launched recently by the wonderful website A Mighty Girl in response to Disney’s “makeover” of Merida, the girl heroine in the movie “Brave.” If you have seen the movie you will know that Merida is young, headstrong, clever, a bit naughty, adventurous, athletic and yes, brave. And she looks like a young girl! How wonderful (and how rare) to have a such a great role model for our daughters, I thought. (Miss B. hated the movie – the old Witch scared her – but Hey! I loved it.)

The movie made stonking great wads of cash for Disney. So what did they do? When it was time to launch Merida as a Disney collectible, suddenly her waist was nipped, her breasts grew, her dress was tighter and drawn provocatively down on her shoulders, her face was made up and her hair curled and coloured. She looked about 20.

Little girls, yet again, were being sent the message that they aren’t good enough unless they lose weight, wear tighter, sexier, “girlier” clothes, wear lots of makeup and style their hair.

Here’s an extract from the petition sent by A Mighty Girl to Disney:

The redesign of Merida in advance of her official induction into the Disney Princess collection does a tremendous disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model who speaks to girls’ capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired. Moreover, by making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior; that for girls and women to have value — to be recognized as true princesses — they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty.

We write to you on behalf of all the young girls who embraced Merida as a role model, who learned from her that they too could go off on an adventure and save the day; that it’s not how you look that matters but who you are. For them and for all the children — both girls and boys — who benefit from seeing depictions of strong, courageous, and independent-minded girls and women that are so scarce in animated movies, we ask you to return to the original Merida that we all know and love. We ask you to keep Merida Brave!

Head on over to the A Mighty Girl website for an update on the campaign (and to sign the petition).

I have been torturing myself a bit over whether we have made the right decision about the party or whether we are making it more of an issue than it really has to be. Some would accuse me of that, I’m sure. I guess it comes down to this: Do I stand by my convictions or not?

So, I’m taking a stand. When I declined I decided not to go into details about our reason (no-one likes a lecturing party pooper) unless I was asked. The Birthday Girl’s mother asked. I took a breath and told her, in what I hope was a tactful and non-judgemental way. Interestingly enough, this was received with complete understanding.

Next, my partner and I made a plan. Little girls hate to be excluded at this age,  and issues such as who is friends with whom and who is going to what party are of paramount importance.

I did consider telling Miss B. that we declined the invitation because we thought we would be away, etc. I wanted to spare her any pain or embarrassment. But then, as my dear and rather wise partner pointed out to me, what’s the point of having a conviction if you are not honest about it, and what is that going to teach our child?

So, we have decided to tell her briefly and simply why she is not going. She is already familiar with our stance on this issue: For her birthday party she asked for a makeover party and we discussed together why that wasn’t an option. She handled it well. We have also decided to plan something else special for that day (ice skating or mini golf or movies – her choice) and to tell her that she can bring a friend. That way, when she goes to school on Monday she will have something exciting to talk about too. And in a week or so we might have a little “party” with the birthday girl at home with another classmate who couldn’t make it to Club Girly-Girlz either.

Miss B. will still be disappointed. And that is something we will just have to bear together.

If you are the parent of a young daughter I would urge you to be aware of the messages coming at our precious girls from all sources. And then, think carefully. Do I really buy the pink lego set? Why not the normal one? Do I really get out the book about little pink princesses? What about the one about the girl detective, or the joke book, or the book about learning to sew/play golf/paint? What TV programmes are going to make her feel genuinely good about herself and about being a girl? How can I model to her what it is to be a woman? (And while I’m on this: No more grabbing your tummy and thighs and sighing and asking your husband “Do I look fat in this?” in front of your daughter, please. No more harsh criticism of your incredible body that has created, nurtured and given birth to another human being. Our little girls model themselves on us. Let’s try to be the best role models for body acceptance that we can be.)

My wish for my daughter is that she grows up confident, brave (Go Merida!), clever and kind. I do not want her to believe that her gorgeous little body and face are currency. I want her to be an active and adventurous little human, who can delight in her femininity (who doesn’t love dressing up as a pink princess now and then?), knowing that it is just part of what makes her special and unique. I want her to believe that she can aspire to more than a plastic, mute, Disney ideal.

If I want to see this wish fulfilled, then the little stands I take now, the decisions I make on her behalf, the lines I draw in the sand, the little disappointments I must let her bear, do matter.

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