What’s the difference between parents of pageant kids and you?

Did you know that tween girls spend 40 million a month a beauty products? Another fun fact: The percentage of eight- to twelve-year-olds who regularly use mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010.

This info is from Peggy Orenstein’s best-selling book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Here’s the passage where she writes about the difference between the parents of child pageant competitors and “ordinary” parents:

No question, they have taken the obsession with girl’s looks to an appalling extreme; but, one could argue, the difference between them and the rest of us may be more one of degree than of kind.  “Ordinary” parents might balk at the $3,000 dress or the spray tan but guess what? in 2007, we spent a whopping $11.5 billion on clothing for our seven to fourteen-year-olds, up from $10 billion in 2004. Close of half to six to nine year old girls regulatry use lipstick or gloss, presumably with parental approval; the precentage of eight to twelve year olds who regularly use mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010, to 18 and 15 percent respectively. “Tween” girls now spend more than $40 million a month on beauty products. No wonder Nair, the depilatory maker, in 2007 released Nair Pretty, a fruit-scented line designed to make ten-year-old conscious of their “unwanted” body hair. And who, according to the industry tracking group, NPD, most inspires girls’ purchases? Their moms. AS a headline on the cheeky feminist Web site Jezebel.cm asked, “How Many 8 Year Olds Have to Get Bikini Waxes Before We Can All Agree the Terrorists Have Won?

Reel Girl is 2 years old today! Progress made against ‘genderfication’ of childhood?

I started Reel Girl on December 27, 2009 in a post Christmas pink haze. It was my first holiday season with three daughters, my youngest child was nine months old. I was amazed by how gendered all their Christmas presents were. Truly amazed. Even the little one had a stack of all pink toys and clothing. But it was Polly Pocket who drove me to blog. Those teeny-weeny clothes. I can’t even deal with organizing all the clothing for my own kids, not to mention Polly’s ugly, shiny outfits. It wasn’t just Polly, of course. So many toys given to my kids had to do with getting dressed: magnetic dress dolls, paper doll cut out coloring books, Barbie dolls, on and on and on. Talk about training your daughters to be obsessed with clothing and appearance.

In the two years that I’ve been blogging and paying a lot of attention to this issue, have we made progress limiting the ‘genderfication’ of childhood? (I’m using ‘genderfication’ instead of ‘gendering’ to highlight the mass-market, artificial drive to segregate kids)

Movies and TV seem worse than ever. Girls are half our kid population but show up only as a tiny minority on the big and small screens. In 2010, Disney switched the title of “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” and announced it would make no more princess movies. Who cares, right? Princesses suck. But the complex problem is, tragically, if a girl character gets top billing in a film at all, chances are she’s a princess. It’s kind of like if you want to win a Miss America college scholarship, first you’ve got to parade around in your bathing suit. By saying no more princesses, what Disney was really saying was: coming soon, even fewer girl stars! At that time, in response to Disney’s blatant sexism of switching a title to hide a girl and publicly announcing that decision, hardly a parent made a peep.

And toys? Also, only worse. To me, the new Legos for girls that just went on the market hit an all time low in the genderfication of childhood.

But on the positive side, parents are getting pissed off. Hundreds (can I say thousands yet?) are going to Lego’s Facebook page and complaining.

There’s other evidence parents have had enough. Early this year, Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter came out and became a best-seller. Melissa Wardy’s Pigtail Pals, a company aimed at creating empowering clothing for girls, grew enormously, in part when posts Wardy wrote about JCPenney’s sexist T shirt  “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother did it for me” went viral. JCPenney pulled the shirt.

The Geena Davis Institute released an in depth study about the sexism in kids’ media. Other organizations doing great work as far as activism around these issues include Powered by Girl, SPARK, About Face, SheHeroes, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Princess Free Zone, 7Wonderlicious, Achilles Effect, Pink Stinks, New Moon Girls, and more. In the past two years, I’ve discovered some great blogs that monitor the sexism marketed to our kids including Balancing Jane, Mama Feminista, The Twin Coach, Blue Milk, Hoyden About Town, and many more.

In two years, Reel Girl has grown as well. Reel Girl posts have been featured, written about, or linked to major sites around the web including The Week (best opinion a couple times), Jezebel, Blogher (Spotlight Blogger), Forbes.com, Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Ms., Common Sense Media, and many more. Reel Girl is also cross posted on SFGate.

Reel Girl guest poster Melissa Spiers wrote about a sexist ad from ChapStick. Her post received over 25,000 page views and the company ended up taking down and discontinuing the photo of a woman’s ass.

This summer Pixar is coming out with Brave, the animation studio’s first film ever to star a female protagonist. It’s kind of unbelievable that we’ve  had to wait this long for one girl, but I’m excited to see her. I hope people go in droves and take their sons as well. This whole issue is really about the parents, and I’m happy they’re taking more action.

But there is a kid who is really pissed off and telling the world about it herself. Her name is Riley and the youtube video showing her smart observations on the gendered aisles, toys, and colors forced on kids is going viral as I post this. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here. It’s awesome.

And finally some exciting news around here: my husband and I are writing a Middle Grade book inspired by a story he started telling our daughters. It’s a fantasy adventure. Here’s one sentence about it: “Legend of Emery: The Battle for the Sather Stone is the story of how Nessa, a Frake, and Posey, a Fairy, overcome a history of mutual prejudice to become great friends, working together to stop a war by recovering the stolen Sather stone, the source of all magic, and returning it to its rightful owner, the Fairy Queen Arabel.”

Here’s to hoping we take many more giant steps forward in 2012.

How do you protect your daughter’s imagination?

In the monochromatic girlworld of mass-marketing, how do you protect your daughter’s  imagination? As Peggy Orenstein writes in her fabulous book Cinderella Ate My Daughter,  this is her major concern as a parent: How do you help these girls to remember that pink is just one color in the rainbow? With the limited, repetitive roles for girls in movie after movie and too many books, how do you keep showing them that there are infinite parts they can play?

I make up many stories for my kids, as does my husband. The problem is I want to brainwash my kids but not too much! As my kids’ mom, I obviously, already have an enormous amount of power in their lives. The stories my kids tell me are often  derivative of the ones I’ve told them, sometimes too much. When they get stuck like that or continually repeat the same story, I try saying something like: She always takes that path and it doesn’t work out for her so well, what do you think she would do now instead? Maybe she gallops off on a dragon’s back? Or hides under a rock? Runs so fast she flies into the sky?

I would love to hear some suggestions about how you protect your daughters’ imaginations.

Peggy Orenstein’s Yes List

Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Orenstein put together her list of  best books and products for girls. And boys! She writes, reminding us boys benefit from hearing stories about girls too. Duh! But as a mom of three daughters, sometimes I forget. Great to have this resource, and I for one, am happy PO clarified about Roald Dahl. I, too, LOVE this man as a writer but something in his story-telling doesn’t quite sit right with girl empowerment.

Why are kids the gender police?

Lots of comments on my last post about Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and that no matter how no matter how hard parents try, girls and boys adamantly refuse to be nudged out of their prescribed (marketed!) gender roles.

 

Orenstein elaborates on this challenge in her book: right around ages 2 -3, kids begin to understand that there’s something called a ‘boy’ and something thing called a ‘girl ‘and that something important differentiates between them. The problem is, they’re not sure what that is. Orenstein writes, “The whole penis-vagina thing does not hold quite the same cachet among the wee ones as it does among us.”

Orenstein recounts a story about a kid, Jeremy, who wore his favorite barrettes to school and was taunted by another kid who said, “You’re a girl!”

Jeremy denied it, arguing that he had a penis and testicles. The classmate replied, “Everyone has a penis, only girls wear barrettes.”

Orenstein asks: “If toting the standard equipment is not what makes you male or female, exactly what does? Well, duh, barrettes.”

Making things evermore complicated, kids at this age also don’t understand that identity is fixed, a girl might grow up to be a dad or a mom. All this ‘slippery stuff’ can make a kid nervous– if she cuts her hair too short, she could turn into a boy!

Orenstein quotes the neuroscientist, Lise Eliot, author ofPink Brain, Blue Brain: “The prefrontal cortex of the brain is what looks to the future, and that’s the slowest part to develop. Another example would be death: young children have a very hard time understanding that a pet or a person who has died is gone forever. They may listen to what you say and seem to get it, but secretly, they believe it can change.”

(Note: I feel the same way about death– eek!)

Orenstein says kids’ solution at this stage is often to “cling rigidly to the rules and hope for the best.” Lucky for them– the Disney Princess marketing machine is here to help! Orenstein writes, “Developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they’re girls.”

There’s no simple solution here, but plenty to think about, the main question being, when your child is looking for an identity, do you want the Disney executives to be the ones suggesting it to her?

Female desire and the princess culture

Thank you Peggy Orenstein for writing the brilliant book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Every parent should read this new, excellent analysis of the ubiquitous princess kid-culture and its various mutations in the world of grown-up women.

 

Orenstein, a NY Times journalist, mom, and writer takes on and deconstructs two (so annoying!) messages every parent hears if she dares to challenge the monarchy of these frothy creatures.

Myth number one: we’re just giving girls what they want!

Orenstein responds with a brief history of marketing and information on child brain development– some major points paraphrased here:

Pink Children were not color-coded until early twentieth century. Before that, babies wore all white, because to get clothing clean, it had to be boiled. Boys and girls also used to all wear dresses. When nursery colors were introduced, pink was more masculine, a pastel version of the red, which was associated with strength. Blue was like the Virgin Mary and symbolized innocence, thus the girl color. When the color switched is vague. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland all wear blue. Sleeping Beauty’s gown was switched to pink to differentiate her from Cinderella.

Baby doll In an 1898 survey, less than 25% of girls said dolls were their favorite toy. “President Theodore Roosevelt… obsessed with declining birth rates among white, Anglo-Saxon women, began waging a campaign against ‘race-suicide.’ When women ‘feared motherhood,” he warned, our nation trembled on the ‘brink of doom.’ Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive; within a few years, dolls were ubiquitous, synonymous with girlhood itself. Miniature brooms, dustpans, and stoves tutored these same young ladies in the skills of homemaking…”

Princess When Orenstein herself was a kid, being called a Princess, specifically Jewish-American, was the worst insult a kid (and her family) could get. How had a generation transformed this word into a coveted compliment?

Disney Princesses as a group brand did not exist until 2000. Disney hired Andy Mooney from Nike. He went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls in homemade princess costumes. Disney had never marketed characters outside of a movie release and never princesses from different movies together. Roy Disney was against it, and that’s why, still, even on pull-ups, you won’t see the princesses looking at each other. (How’s that for a model for girls in groups or female friendships?) Princesses are now marketed to girls ages 2 – 6. Mooney began the campaign by envisioning a girl’s room and thinking about a princess fantasy: what kind of clock would a princess have? What type of bedding? Dora and Mattel followed suit with Dora and Barbie princess versions and then along came everyone else.

Toddler Clothing manufacturers in the 1930s counseled department stores that in order to increase sales they should create a ‘third stepping stone’ between infant wear and older kids clothing

Tween Coined in the mid-1980s as a marketing contrivance (originally included kids 8 – 15)

More on tweens, toddlers, girls and boys: if there is micro-segmentation of products by age and gender, people buy more stuff. If kids need a pink bat and a blue bat, you double your sales. Orenstein writes: “Splitting kids and adults, or for that matter, penguins, into ever tinier categories has proved a surefire way to boost profits. So where there was once a big group called kids we now have toddlers, pre-schoolers, tweens, young-adolescents and older adolescents, each with their own developmental and marketing profile…One of the easiest ways to segment the market is to magnify gender differences or invent them where they did not previously exist.”

SeoWoo and Her Pink Things by JeongMee Yoonhttp://www.jeongmeeyoon.com/aw_pinkblue.htm SeoWoo and Her Pink Things by JeongMee Yoon 

One major fallout of gendering every plaything? “Segregated toys discourage cross-sex friendships.” Boys and girls stop playing together. Orenstein writes about the long-term effects: “This is a public health issue. It becomes detrimental to relationships, to psychological health and well-being, when boys and girls don’t learn how to talk to one another…Part of the reason we have the divorce rates we do, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking behaviors, sexual harassment is because the lack of ability to communicate between men and women.”

Orenstein argues: “Eliminating divorce or domestic violence may be an ambitious mandate for a pre-school curriculum, but its not without basis: young children who have friends of the opposite sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better.”

Myth #2: that princess stuff is just a phase– she’ll grow out of it!

Princesses are marketed to girls 2 – 6 years old; there’s something very creepy and dangerous about making these kids victims of billion dollar industries. Kids brains are literally being formed, they’re malleable. So this little phase is helping to create a brain that lasts forever.

Scientists have pretty much moved on from the anachronistic, simplistic debate of nature versus nurture. It’s now understood that nature and nurture form and create each other in an endless loop. Your experiences influence your wiring.

For example, small kids can make all kinds of sounds to learn languages. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain is quoted by Orenstein: “Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, its possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”

“It’s not that pink is intrinsically bad, it is such a tiny slice of the rainbow,” Orenstein writes. To grow brains, kids need more, varied experiences, not fewer.

Phases don’t vanish, they mutate.

Orenstein’s book traces how the real life Disney stars/ girl princesses (i.e. Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus etc) attempt to make their transitions from girl-princesses into adult ones; or more crassly, from virgin to whore. Orenstein writes it’s impossible to commodify one end of the spectrum and not the other, and there are so few models of healthy female sexuality out there. She writes, “Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized.” All that early training for girls to focus incessantly on their appearance lasts a lifetime. What happens when these girls try to grow up? Orenstein writes girls learn, “Look sexy, but don’t feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves.”

How does this emphasis on dressing up and attention for appearance affect kids as they grow? Stephen Hinshaw, quoted from his book The Triple Bind, explains, “Girls pushed to be sexy too soon can’t really understand what they’re doing…they may never learn to connect their performance to erotic feelings or intimacy. They learn how to act desirable, but not to desire, undermining, rather than promoting, healthy sexuality.”

The basic message I got from this book: the issue is not pink or princesses, but to give your kid more experiences not less. Remember– many colors in the rainbow!

(1) Encourage and reinforce cross-gender play. If your daughter is playing with a boy, acknowledge it, reinforce what they’re doing. You are the biggest influence in your kid’s life, you’re not ‘just another person.’ Talk to your kids pre-school teachers and administrators about encouraging cross-gender play. There is lots in this book about how teachers are not trained in this area at all and miss opportunities to help brains grow.

(2) Remember, your kid is not a small adult. She has a different brain. Help that brain grow! If your son picks up a My Little Pony, buy it for him instead of yet another car. It won’t make him gay! It will make him smart!

(3) Your kids are watching you! Again, they are not just little people with fully formed minds. If you criticize your appearance (or another woman’s), how you treat your partner, how you eat, she takes note.