By Alison Cross
All throughout my childhood, I was captivated by stories of the Disney Princesses. Their combination of a handsome prince, cute furry animals, and being “the fairest of them all” was enchanting to this little girl, as it was to millions of others. I even remember an earnest prayer where I begged God for blond hair and blue eyes. I was convinced my life would be better if I had those qualities.
I didn’t always compare my beauty to cartoon characters (which, come to think of it, were drawings by men). No, I also admired Strawberry Shortcake who was a real doll. She smelled good, had an adorable dress and hat, and came with a pet. She also had cool buddies. I still remember the large plastic strawberry I toted them around in-I loved those toys. Blueberry Muffin, Apple Dumpling with her pet turtle…my friends and I were sold. Many afternoons were spent playing with the Strawberry Gang.
Strawberry Shortcake is still around today. My daughter received one for her birthday. By today’s standards, she’s still perfectly cute. But there are some major changes when you compare the two. The doll sold to me back in the 80’s appeared like a little girl. Now though, SS looks more like the sexy babysitter. Look at some of the changes this company made in their product…long dark red hair, full red lips, large eyes, red mary janes, mini dress, and optional hair extensions. Keep in mind, this is sold to the same market of girls. Why were these changes perceived as more valuable? Would girls still play with the 80’s version of this doll?
The answer is, probably not. But more importantly, why not? In 2007, the American Psychological Association released a study on the sexualization of youth in our culture today. What does that mean? This term refers to “imposing sexuality on children before they’re ready, viewing girls as sex objects, and valuing a girl for her appearance over her other attributes.” Believe it or not, Shortcake’s extreme makeover is just a small example of sexualization. Dolls like this encourage young girls to be focused on their appearance at an early age. Sexualization also affects boys (page 28 of the APA report) but not nearly as much as girls. Girls know, at an early age that our culture values them more for how they appear vs. who they are. They’re expected to conform to an extreme beauty ideal that’s composed by media outlets, peers, and parental influence.
In my Body, Beauty, and Bravery camps for Girls, on the first day I show them a video entitled “Jessica’s Affirmations.” The first thing this young girl says is “I can be a shark!” Studies show that by the age of 12 (and I’ve seen this happen younger), girls tend to lose their “sharkiness.” They lose the essence of what makes them unique and start listening more and more to the pressures of our culture about what they’re supposed to look and be like. This doesn’t connect with who they are, and girls react by shutting down their personalities and instincts. The APA study supports this research and says that girls exposed to sexualization are more vulnerable to low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders.
What can both parents do to empower their kids in our current cultural climate? First, know the content of ads. What beauty ideals and ideas of masculinity are being communicated? The mere act of engaging in a conversation with your child about media shows them that you don’t buy it and desire for them to question such images as well. What’s the difference between responsible advertising and irresponsible? Don’t buy in to companies and products that contribute to the problem. Dr. Jim Taylor, who blogs for the Huffington Post, wrote “No demand + No market = No sexualization.” Figure it out together-it’ll be a very rewarding journey that leads to deeper conversations about real beauty.
Second, practice good body image. Refuse to speak negatively about your body, and instead express an appreciation for your physical heritage. We are not meant to conform to one particular body shape, and definitely not meant to walk around looking photoshopped! Consider Psalms 139:14 which identifies that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Are you living that? Are you representing that to your children? To yourself?
Finally, remind your kids why they’re valuable. I ask my daughter every day, “why do I love you?” The answer isn’t based on what she does or what she looks like. She knows the answer, and I’ll keep asking until I know it’s deep in her heart. “Because I’m yours, mommy. Because I’m yours.”
© Alison Cross and Atlanta Counseling Center, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alison Cross and Atlanta Counseling Center with appropriate and specific direction to the original content