2014: The Year Of Redefining Girly

Jan. 10, 2014 Even in just the last 5 years or so since the American Psychological Association Task Force reported about the harm of early sexualization and its impact on children (full 72pp APA study here) I’ve wondered “what’s taking so long, can’t people see this is a huge public health problem?

Positive change feels glacial while negative influence feels like it’s been a rapid fire race to the bottom.

In just a handful of years since academic powerhouses and media critics wrote groundbreaking, well-researched indictments of emerging public health problems connected to marketing greed, like So Sexy So Soon, Packaging Girlhood, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, The Lolita Effect, and Reality Bites Back, we’ve seen FURTHER globalization of Western beauty ideals, stratification of pink/blue gender roles creating limiting, narrowcast stereotypes and damaging body image pressures impacting children’s mental, physical, and socio-emotional wellbeing. What gives?

How can we have shifted so fast from a playful, rainbow-hued, “Free to Be, You and Me” era of childhood acceptance of every shape, color and credo to a tipping point of sexualized sameness? Barbie seems iconic at this point, as we’ve segued to Bratz, Monster High, NoviStars, Bratzillaz, and Winx! It begins to shake the very foundation of what it means to be a girl in today’s mass market depiction of worth and value when the acceleration and proliferation of appearance-based objectification is the standard daily intake.

In short, kids have gone from second-hand smoke exposure of sexualization and stereotypes to being the very air they breathe.

Redefining Girly by Melissa Atkins Wardy is a call for fresh air, helping parents put a filter on the ambient intake of media and marketing by giving them the tools they need to pushback and regain control of the controllables among kids, neighbors, friends, educators, and corporate credos, with an upbeat, “we’re all in this together” tonality. (shades of that catchy High School Musical number)

Part oxygen mask using critical thinking skills to help children deconstruct the noxious mind pollution, and part smelling salts for defeatist parents shoulder-shrugging the unhealthy environment like a bad air quality day in “not much we can do about it” mode,  Redefining Girly gives hands-on hope through suggestions, activities, and solutions-based talking points that let parents know they’re not alone, a unity that is a force field in itself…

As parents find themselves awash in a tsunami of sexualized products and behavioral cues floundering to survive the storm while waiting for what looks to be a forthcoming sea change, Redefining Girly tosses a life ring and a hang on shoutout of “You Got This!” encouragement…

This is where the timing feels so right for the book…Author Melissa Atkins Wardy welcomes parents into a lifeboat packed with real world coping skills and useful tips like a solid anchor to keep from being cast adrift in our own home ports.

Debunking the harm of stereotypes is pretty straightforward work, but defining sexualization can be misleading…

…So to dodge and delete the trolls from this post at the onset with “pearl clutching prude” accusations, let’s contextualize the meaning of sexualization, which sets it apart from HEALTHY sexuality.

Here’s a quick review of the components, straight out of the APA study:

Sexualization occurs when:

    a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;

a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;

a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or

sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.

This post by Melissa on her Pigtail Pals/Ballcap Buddies blog titled “Amelia Gets Sexy” is a solid example of the ambient existence of sexualization that kids are exposed to…and it’s also a great example of the way she interacts with her social media community (prompting a photo caption contest to open eyes, then reminding how parents can take action) which is the type of tonality and tip you might find in the book.

She candidly shares her reaction to her daughter’s lens, voicing,

“I’m really glad she didn’t notice or didn’t ask about the whip and tie. I can handle talking about a lot of things with my kids. BDSM less than ten feet from the kiddies rides is not one of those things.” 

And though her new book Redefining Girly doesn’t have the show-n-tell visuals that her blog does here (which is worth a million words in calling out the objectification and pornification of an ambient “can’t turn it off” window display at the mall adjacent to the kids play area) the book details multiple ‘what ifs’ for handling sticky situations coming from a markedly different ‘parent turned author’ point of view.

The format is breezy and casual, with a ‘hey, maybe try this’ appeal that speaks parent to parent, while being grounded in the copious quantities of research by predecessors.

She is unabashedly honest about not having all the solutions, while serving up critical thinking skills and multiple samples of conversation that may have just provided you one!

Each chapter in Redefining Girly threads in solutions for sticky situations, from visitor’s fat talk and body image that land like a thud on your table of family values to guidelines for handling awkward, cringe-inducing gifts or “nope, that’s not gonna happen” media outings…and each chapter ends with a short letter to the reader from an “expert” on that topic, which often wraps up some of the points she’s already made.

(I even contributed a blurb to Chapter 9, though I blanch at the word ‘expert’ in any context, as I feel the value of her book is the lens of ‘parents in the trenches’ crowdsourcing and sharing what works and what doesn’t individually within the personal context of each family’s unique tenor) 

 To be honest, I truly didn’t know what to expect.

At first, I didn’t have a clue how Melissa Wardy could POSSIBLY fill a book with anything that hadn’t been already said by the scholarly research pros…

Those media mavens were my catalyst for forming Shaping Youth to write about changing the channel of media and marketing influence, as culture-jammers, slayers of stereotypes and crusaders for media literacy, and I’ve been honored to share the same foxhole in the media blitzkrieg battling for kids’ hearts and minds over the last half dozen years…

In fact it was Jean Kilbourne’s film series (Killing Us Softly, Slim Hopes, etc.) and the New Moon Girls, “Mind on the Media” Selling to Hollywood conference with keynote Geena Davis during the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants early 2005 era  that inspired ME to “switch the lens” as a writer/producer and record my own observations on K-5 playgrounds as a living lab, working on Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth and creating “m-power” hands-on media literacy games.

And yes, I’ve written about Melissa’s company Pigtail Pals many times before and Shaping Youth is now a partner org in the Brave Girls Alliance which Melissa Wardy co-founded with Inês Almeida as part of a global movement to “Take Back Media” messaging which launching on International Day of the Girl in Times Square this past fall.

But media literacy colleagues KNOW…I am dedicated to doggedly stripping away personal bias in pursuit of what makes a media or marketing project unique, and I wasn’t about to give her a hallpass.

I shelled out full price for Redefining Girly, put it under the Christmas tree, and pulled out my highlighter pen to put it through the paces, ultimately feeling like I’d had a chat with a few friends swapping parenting stories, like a ‘girls night out’ where we toss out advice and take home the tidbits that we can apply to our own lives.

It’s cherry-picking with a learned lens and social media savvy, using tools and tactics to teach critical thinking that didn’t even exist just a few years ago.

Her social media community alone is a huge point of differentiation with Redefining Girly, as she leverages examples from her own vocal Facebook group and her blog for broad based regionally diversity sharing tips from different ages and stages of parenthood.

She may be based in Janesville Wisconsin, but this is clearly a global dialogue. It’s like being invited to a ‘drop in’ open house with a welcoming host, which feels more like a “living book” of experiences to draw from to uncork family conversations.

To me, the book represents a bit of a baton pass to the next generation of passionistas and parents who want practical, actionable solutions in fireside chat form using social media as both a catalyst for action and a platform to keep the conversations current, relevant and ongoing.

Examples of topics?

She educates about the massive difference between the color pink and “pink culture”…

Explains the trickiness of identifying an item as too sexy when a kid that age shouldn’t even be thinking about the aspects of sexy much less have a product depicting it…

Describes thinking about toys as ‘nutrient rich’ as we do healthy foods…

And talks about ‘redirecting’ playmates and relatives tactfully and respectfully without putting down one to elevate the other stance, and all kinds of ways to “redefine girly” on your own terms.

It’s like ordering up a big serving of parent power with a double-scoop of pragmatism and a side of accountability..hold the judgment, please.

It has a ‘meet you where you are’ flexibility…

Loads of lists and suggestions by developmental age and stage but also a clear understanding that it might be a ‘fly over’ for parents joining these conversations at different levels of awareness and sophistication when it comes to critical thinking. (screenshot at left from Bailey Shoemaker Richards, a favorite young ‘critical thinker,’ author and friend)

That’s my Achilles heel, which hit me with the power of a slingshot sting…I often ASSUME parents “get it” and are looking for solutions, some are still figuring out what the problem is, much less how to define it.

Much like the “fish don’t feel water is wet” context of immersive environments, there’s also a dynamic of parents whose kids look like ‘mini-me’ adults who might as well be saying sexualization? What sexualization? Water? What water?  Sameness? What sameness?

She handles this conundrum well…helping others open eyes and nudge toward awareness for healthier choices without sounding judgmental or putting parents on the defense.

Re-reading through one of her recent posts on her Pigtail Pals blog “When Do We Allow Our Girls To Partake In Commercialized Sexualization” it made me consider some of the advice in her book which I’ll put to use in “guest educator” environs as that saturation of ‘sameness’ turns into ‘social norming’ among peers creating health problems that apply to the marketing of junk food, bullying, gender stereotypes, you name it…

For me, being ‘too close to it’ sometimes makes it hard to be tactful when the child advocate inside is muttering, “Are you freakin’ kidding me here? How can you not see this?” But Melissa managed to dole out some usable sound bites that may come in handy next time when I have a close encounter of incredulity…

She also points out parents’ own complicity if we choose NOT to pushback on the ‘what sells’ trope, while offering ways to manage our own role in purchasing power (and, er, tactful gift returns and exchanges) and best practices to let out a rebel yell to corporations.

To give you a feel for the tonality, a few outtakes on similar subjects:

On body image, Chapter 6, pg 94: “By showing your daughter that our bodies are instruments, not ornaments, life takes on a different meaning. An ornament is meant to be gazed at and set up high to be admired for its prettiness. An instrument has the purpose of creating and doing…”

On counter-marketing Mattel’s Monster High dolls with a 6 year old, Chapter 5, pg 81:

“I was very careful not to use pejoratives or slut-shame the dolls, but in all honesty, cheap hooker is what was going through my head…”

She cited several examples of attempting to reason with logic and examples and analogies with her child, and then she ratchets it up to what we do here at Shaping Youth, using ‘applied science’ for persuasive ‘aha’ moments so kids ‘get it’…As she explained:

“…We went upstairs to her dress-up drawer and picked out clothes that were much too small and tight for her. She put them on and tried to play but quickly found she couldn’t move freely. We then made the connection that maybe Monster High dolls were silly, because how could those girls move around and be teenagers who do fun things and play sports? Amelia said she thought maybe they just stood around and looked pretty.”

My favorite section of the book?

It’s a toss up between “Becoming the media you want  to see” which builds on critical thinking skills to suggests we don’t have to accept absolutes and lists activities and fun ways kids can create or shape their own media (again, appeals to my applied science side of games, activities and hands-on fun) and the chapter on “Using Your Voice and Consumer Power” which obviously speaks to me at the core of this site…

I’ll no doubt be writing more as the book starts awakening the sleeping giants…We’re already seeing progress in redefining girlhood via film in Hollywood as the demand for “sheroes” takes hold; this could be the cavalry coming en masse if media chooses to get onboard for healthier cues as they have the clout to make change happen FAST…

As more parents seek an elixir, I’m hopeful businesses will finally begin to see that mixing up formulaic caldrons of sexualization and gender stereotypes have become a poison-laced brew…

If others keep drinking the KoolAid and swallow the inevitability of purchasing ‘what’s out there’ without questioning it, the potion maintains its power through the magic of money.

Parents. Educators. Well-meaning gift buyers. Time to start redefining girlhood and spread the word widely…

To truly cease the public health problem this has become, we need to ALL throw down the gauntlet and tip over the chalice. Gloves off. It’s 2014…The Year Of Redefining Girly.

Are we there yet? Couldn’t happen quick enough for me.

Recent Reading on Sexualization/Impact on Kids by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Brave Girls Want A Movement, Not a Moment

Brave Girls Want: Melissa Mayer To Lead, Not Follow

Brave Girls Want: Change. That’s Not Merida, Disney. Be Brave and Fix It.

Beyond Merida: Toy Industry Complicity in Marketing Vapid Values

The Tooth Fairy is Not A Brand! The Real Tooth Fairies/Sexualization

Ground Hog Day: Superbowl Sexism Keeps Popping Up!

Public Health: Domestic Violence at the Grammys, Too Short of a Memory

The Bro Code: Media, Masculinity and Misogynistic Misfires

Bratzillaz, Novi Stars and Monster High, Same Sexualized Snorefest

Girl Caught: New Moon Girls Slams Sexualization of Kids, Calls Out Harm

Kids, Media, and Intimacy/Relationships: The Hottie Factor

Vogue Cadeaux: Children ARE Gifts, Not To Be Bought or Sold

Bottom Feeders Like American Apparel Need Whacked in The Assets

Vamp Tramp Toys: A Monster Problem (Mattel)

Tips From the Trenches: Re-Imagining Youth Activism

Body Blitz: APA Shows Harm of Early Sexualization

Steamed About Sexualization? Healthy Media for Youth Act: Pt1

Healthy Youth Media Act: Can Change Be Legislated? Pt2

Teen Girls: Ready for a Rebel Yell to Spark Change?

Toxic Messaging: K-Mart/Alloy Episodic Back to School

Girls Are Not Candies, Tweens Are Not Teens, Thongs Are Not Undies

Baiting Outrage: Using Hooks With Media Mindfulness

Sexualization Summit to Spark Change!

Spark Ignites a Summit of Powerhouses, Geena Davis & More

The Girl Revolution: Empowering Girls Vs. Consuming Them

New Moon Girl Media Community Online

Girls Prescription for Self-Worth: Respect Rx

Raising Girls Amidst Meat Marketing: Carl’s Jr, Burger King Raunch

Taking Aim at Target: Think That V is a Coinkydink?

When It’s Not Hip to Be Square, Sexist Spongebob & Burger Shots

Sexed Up M&Ms Sell Fashionably Decadent Premium Sleaze

Mama’s Got A Brand New Bag…Er…Face. Nose. Belly.

Body Image: Tips for Teens (Both Genders!) To Survive the Media Morass

What Sells: Infants As Fashion Statements & Joke Props?

So Sexy So Soon, Shaping Youth Talks to Jean Kilbourne

Beyonce’s Dereon Divas: PopTarts and Sesame Streetwalkers?

Sexist Undies: Slimy Santa Innuendo Gets the Heave Ho-Ho-Ho!

Bratz Movie Seeps Bratitude Into Kid Culture

Where My Dogs At? A Misogynistic Misfire-MTV2

Pussycat Dolls Vamp for Lame TV-the ‘F’ Word is Feminist? Hardly.

Celeb Pop Culture and Media’s Tipping Point of Toxicity

Hollywood Walk of Lame—Victoria’s Secret Models ‘Earn’ Star? For WHAT?

Mommy, Why Are Her Legs Spread Like That?

Shaping Youth Is In the L.A. Times (Miley Mess

Kids Are A Captive Audience With Ambient Advertising

Race, Gender, Sexism: Pop Culture Cues & Kids (3-part series)

Commodification of Kids: The Backlash Has Begun

Shaping Youth Through Ambient Advertising

Manga Makeovers And Other Body Image Cartoon Capers

Facelifts for Kiddie Characters?

Gender, Race & Sexism: Shaping Youth Through Pop Culture Cues

Girls As Boy Toys Takes an Even More Toxic Turn

Preteen Tips/How to Say it To Girls

America the Beautiful: See it. Support it.

Childhood Matters Radio Show: Raising Strong, Healthy Girls Today


Related Resources on Gender, Stereotypes & Early Sexualization

APA Task Force on the Early Sexualization of Children (full 72pp pdf)

Miss Representation Education Curriculum

Miss Representation Resources and Stats/Facts

Resource List from So Sexy So Soon

Fact Sheet on Sexualizing Childhood

Stats & resources on sexualization

KFF.org “Sex on TV4″ Program for the study of media & health

Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent Sexuality Jane Brown et al (Eds)

Girls Shape the Future: Study/Girls Inc: Early Predictors of Girls’ Adolescent Sexual Activity (summary: 8 pp pdf)

Packaging Girlhood, Hardy Girls, Healthy Women etc.

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes (Also see Packaging Boyhood; S.Y. Board Advisers:
Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown)

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