Monday, June 25, 2012

Who Are Her Role Models?

Contemporary pop culture is enthralled with generic celebrity. While there are many people who achieve commercial success through talent, hard work and investing their time and energy, there also seems to be an entire generation of young women who are famous because of who she is related to or because her face or name was branded at a very young age and she is now a product to be sold for as long as her handlers can do so.

Little girls are emulating these interchangeable celebrities at younger ages and assuming their own adult lives will be filled with designer handbags and a welcome entourage of paparazzi. Girls tend to look up to other young (celebrity) girls as a way of figuring out who they will be and what they want to emulate as they grow. 

I don’t think that all of these role model choices are bad ones.  When my guitar playing daughter looks to musicians for inspiration – I like to point out the women that write their own music and are famous for their skill and dedication to their craft rather than because of their notoriety in the press.

However, this is not just about admiring someone from afar, it has become so common today to hear that a girl’s goal for her life focus on fame, celebrity and the hopes of a performing or modeling career.   I think that many of us want to encourage more practical pursuits without crushing our children’s dreams.  

Here are some tips on how to do that:

  • Discuss what it might cost some young celebrities to grow up in the public eye. Point out your daughters cherished private moments: a restaurant lunch with a parent, a swim in a public lake, or reading her book in a backyard hammock. Help her to imagine how few private moments a young celebrity has and how she might struggle with the lies and sensationalized stories that are created to sell magazines, movies and products.
  • Celebrity careers are so visible and appear fabulously exciting. According to the  Geena Davis Institute on Media and Gender,  in research looking at all G-rated family films between 2006-2009,  NOT ONE female character was working in the field of medical science, in law, politics or as a business leader.  In fact, of all characters shown to be working or in careers at all, over 80% of them were male.  So clearly, film is not where girls will find ideas for their own careers. Parents can attempt to balance that by making other career options viable and exciting as well. Spend time talking about who you consider to be real heroes. This might be someone who builds schools for girls in developing countries or someone who started an animal rescue organization. Talk about the work that your female friends do and highlight their successes. Be sure to talk proudly of your own work or education, because you are still her most relevant role model.
  • If your daughter wants to pursue acting, dancing or other ways of performing - encourage her participation because these talents and varied experiences will help her build confidence and skills that will be useful in many areas.  If her talent is truly promising, remind her that local productions or teaching in these areas are also worthwhile pursuits. Over time, if she truly loves her craft, she will be motivated by her passion more than her quest for fame and wealth.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of role models for a while – thinking how lucky my daughter is to have many strong women around her but how we still have to make a point of showing that our work, passions and choices about family and lifestyle are interesting and ultimately satisfying – at least as much as the celebrities she has her eye on. 

Because my daughter is interested in science, math and leadership I am especially excited by Dove’s® most recent initiative and have signed up to participate. The event is called Women Who Should be Famous, and it takes place on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 at 7pm EST at  It is a free live-streamed event. Any Canadian with a Facebook account and access to a computer can register on Dove’s® page and is encouraged to participate along with a girl in her life. During the hour-long event the stories of four inspirational women in the fields of science, leadership, environmentalism and the arts will be highlighted. The goal is to “shine the spotlight on the stories of strong role models for the next generation of women.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tween Girl Style

So far I've been more of a gentle blogger than an angry blogger... but tonight I am feeling the rage.  While on facebook, I noticed a new ad to the side of the page. It was for Tween Girl Style Magazine. A little curious and a little apprehensive... I clicked. After all, I am the mother of a so-called "tween". Although, this is a term I have always refused to use because it was created by marketing companies in order to identify a new and lucrative market for advertising. A "tween" is generally used to refer to a girl who marketers are no longer trying to sell childhood toys to and who they don't yet consider to be part of the teen market. 

I don't mind referring to my daughter as a "pre-teen" sometimes, now that she is eleven years old and four inches taller than I am. But until recently I held firmly on to "child" as a perfectly appropriate and reasonable descriptor for this developing person who had only been on the planet a decade and still had a whole lot of emotional, physical and psychological growing to do. Incidentally "tween" is neither a psychological or physical developmental term. Marketers may use it to describe a 6 year old or a 12 year old depending on what they are out to sell. 

In this case, they are selling fashion, celebrity and "cool". From the looks of it they are also selling the modelling industry and promoting specific agents. The target market of the Tween Girl Style Magazine is ages 7-13. The tag line is "they are too old for Dora but too young for 'Days of Our Lives'." These are the choices? So this magazine has seen fit to fill the years between learning to read and getting her first period - with modelling contests, celebrity news and fashion advice. They refer to this span of six critical years in girls' development as a time that they are "left in limbo... searching for a style of their own". 

I think many girls in this age bracket are very much left in limbo and searching... but what they are searching for is not "style" but rather identity and a sense of safety in their own skin as they attempt to negotiate an increasingly sexualized world that depletes their self-esteem and confidence while distorting their body image long before they reach their teen years. As psychologists Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown discuss in their 2006 book, Packaging Girlhoodthat "girls are being sold a version of girlhood that will feel satisfying to them when they conform to it but will limit their possibilities in the future."  The script for North American girlhood is reinforced through TV shows, books, movies and clothing lines and now a special tween girl fashion magazine. The message to girls is that they must love to shop - especially for jewelry and accessories; they must yearn to be models, brides, princesses and fashionistas and they must work hard to be hot, sexy and cool. This cultural script for girlhood literally shapes the development of our daughters. 

healthy "tweens" having a real childhood

What are we doing about that? I think it is increasingly challenging for parents to navigate the culture as well. When we go to the mall and see thongs and padded bras for 10 year olds, when the most frequently available choice for a little girl's swim suit is a string bikini and when we turn on the news and learn that the "latest trend" is for pre teen girls to get their brand new leg, underarm and pubic hair waxed off before summer camp... how are we as parents to know where to draw the line? It can be overwhelming and often it is parents who take the blame for poor choices. 

 I'd like to have a dialogue here -- please tell me how YOU navigate the cultural pitfalls while trying to raise healthy daughters. 

 And while we are talking - I'd like to know - how did you spend those important years? You know, that apparently empty wasteland that we used to call childhood?  I remember that I wrote plays and stories.  My best friend and I made up an endless game called "Bank" in which we took turns (for years, I might add) of creating new and diverse and sometimes completely crazy characters who came in to do their banking. I swam and played tag and played with my dog. I sunk a bazillion baskets with my brother behind the garage. I chatted with my grandma in the garden. I watched my grandpa fix stuff. My mom taught me to cook and my sister took me to a few protest marches while teaching me some critical thinking. I took skating lessons and went to camp and once I took square dancing lessons with my step dad after my mom broke her ankle. Sometimes I was coerced into practising the piano. I went to school and I tried to imagine who I would be when I grew up. And for sure there were times I did wish that I was prettier and wonder what it was like to be the girl in the magazine that Shaun Cassidy had his arm around... but mostly I just got to grow up and find my way without string bikinis and padded bras and body waxings... without the pressure to look cool and be hot.  Wow. Does it get more complicated than THAT for an 9 year old?!

Life got hard for me too... adolescence was painfully complicated for a while but I made it to high school before I was faced with the onslaught of pressure that our girls are facing today, sometimes before they make it out of first grade. What are you doing with your girls to help mitigate the mental and emotional land mines that are around every corner and to help her enjoy a healthy childhood? Let's generate some positive ideas here so that we, as parents, can help each other to resist and create safer spaces in which our girls can grow.