Today we are discussing Chapter 6: Teaching Girls They’re More Than a Pretty Face. Diane Levin is our guest content expert this week to provide insight and lead our discussion. Visit Diane’s website to learn more about her work. Find her on Twitter @. Just joining us? Get all the book study details HERE.
Thank you, Rae Pica. The child development issues you raise in Chapter 6, “Teaching Young Girls that They Are More Than a Pretty Face,” are vitally important for parents, teachers, and the wider society to address if we want to promote the optimal well-being of girls in these times. Several factors you address stand out for me and connect directly to why I felt I needed to write my book, So Sexy So Soon. (Levin, D. & Kilbourne, J., So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009).
The degree to which young girls growing up today focus so much on appearance and think that popularity comes from looking “right”, has not always been quite as extreme as it is today. And the increasing focus of young girls on these issues is not happening totally by chance. It is deeply connected to both how children think in the early years and how they develop ideas about gender. But, it is also highly related to what they learn about how to define their gender from what they see males and females doing in their environment.
Young children tend to think in dichotomies—for example, things are good or bad, right or wrong, for me or not for me. At around 18 months or 2 years, they begin to learn about gender and what they learn fits very well into this dichotomous thinking—for instance, “I am a girl and not a boy.” They then set out using this dichotomous thinking to try to define what it means to be their gender and not the other gender. And because young children are concrete thinkers, they look for concrete images they can see in the world around them to help them define their gender category—pink for girls, dresses for girls (even make-up which is being used at younger ages than in the past), and of course, princesses!
Because of how they think, it is hard for girls and boys not to develop some stereotypes about their gender. They always saw differences in what men and women did and put these differences into the dichotomies they needed in order to define their own gender. But, whatever behavior they learned from their environment for their gender in the past, today’s lessons in the all-pervasive media and commercial culture provide a whole new level of highly visible, gender-stereotyped content (and products) for young children. From very young ages, children are seeing extreme gender divisions, which focus on girls “being pretty,” and needing to look right and having/buying the right things. And, as the Princess theme has become a dominant force in media and popular culture for girls, so has it become a role model for young girls’ appearance and play.
Creators of media for children know just how to exploit the cognitive and gender development vulnerabilities discussed earlier to capture children’s attention and to sell them products which they come to think they need in order to be happy (and popular). And manufacturers make big profits from engaging in these practices (See: Linn, S. Consuming Kids: Protecting Out Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising. New York: Anchor Books, 2005).
Of course, because of how young children think and develop, with an early focus on appearance, there probably has always been some gender-stereotyped behavior that focused on appearance, as young girls tried to figure out what it meant to be a girl, and not a boy. But in girls’ world of today, where appearance has become such a dominant force in media and popular culture, the emphasis on appearance has been greatly increased to the point of being the dominant force for many girls.
Thus, it is more important now than ever that we recognize the importance of finding time and developing strategies and resources to counteract the potential harm being caused and promote positive gender development and the full potential of girls. That is why I am so grateful that Rae Pica has addressed this issue in her book as a vital aspect of child development. We should all know about and address this issue in our work with children.
[A brief note about boys in these times: The developmental and societal issues raised here related to gender are also relevant for them. They too are victims of increasingly narrow and extreme stereotyped images about their gender. For instance, for boys, being tough, macho and ready to fight is what is often modeled as important for them, and viewed as what is necessary to be popular! These images potentially undermine caring behavior and relationships, and can undermine positive interactions and friendships with both other boys and girls. Could the increasing levels of bullying behavior being reported in schools by the “tough guys” of the boys “wimpy guys” have anything to do with the increasingly macho stereotypes being modeled for boys at a young age?]
Here are some additional suggestions for what you can do to counteract the harm to the development of girls caused by the forces in society that I outlined above:
- Protect girls as much as possible from exposure to media and media-linked products that show extreme gender divisions and narrow roles for girls that focus on appearance—even though some of it will get in no matter what adults try to do.
- Talk to children about what they do see on screens. Don’t try to tell them the right way to think about it. Have give-and-take conversations. Ask them what they think. Try to complicate their thinking by asking questions like: How are the girls on the screen like you? How are they different? Make the conversations comfortable so children feel safe talking with you about what they really think.
- Help children develop a broad range of interests, skills, friends, and behavior beyond a focus on appearance.
- Work with families to help them better understand the gender issues in these times, and reduce the exposure to and impact of gender stereotyping in their children’s lives. And help families talk with each other so that when their children get together to play, there are shared understandings about the issues.
- Work in small and big ways in the community and wider society to reduce the gender-stereotyped images that girls are seeing in the community, media, and commercial culture.
- Have you seen behavior like what Rae and I describe?
- Please describe some of the more dramatic examples.
- Do you have concerns about this behavior? If so, what worries you the most?
- What aspects of popular culture [TV shows, movies, video games, toys] seem to enter most into the gender specific play and behavior you see?
- Have you tried any of the strategies recommended by Rae Pica or me for dealing with the gender divisions among girls and boys and particular stereotyped behavior of the girls or boys?
- How did they work?
- Do you have other strategies to suggest to readers?
- Do you have questions about what Rae or I wrote about this issue that you would like us or other readers to answer? If so, please ask!
Please share/retweet this post! Let us know that you’re participating in this study. We’d love to hear from you about your thoughts regarding Chapter 6 and about the Thought Questions Diane has provided. Your voice matters – participate in the dialogue and share your ideas here! (Comment below) If you’ve chosen to blog about what you’ve read on your own site, link back and share your post with us here. Perhaps you have a burning question about something that you read in one of these chapters… we have a feature for that – Ask The Author! That’s right, Rae Pica will be available throughout this live study to answer your questions. #AskAuthor
What to read next: Chapter 13- Play Is Not a Four Letter Word (9/28/15).
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