Focus on media: A toxic culture for girls

The shameless exploitation of little girls by commercial interests is poisoning a generation.
Melinda Tankard Reist | Aug 17 2007 | comment  



Living in a sex-saturated society we are used to seeing the image of women cheapened. But baby dolls who know how to "flaunt" their sexuality? Provocative underwear for little girls, and "pole dancing" kits for them to entertain their families and friends with suggestive moves - and be paid in play dollars for it? If we care about children the time has come to put a stop to this ugly trend, says Melinda Tankard Reist, founding director of Women's Forum Australia and editor of its new report on women's magazines, Faking It. In this interview with MercatorNet she calls for a new global movement of women and girl advocacy.

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MercatorNet: Most of us have seen the little girls in miniskirts, platforms and boob tubes; we have heard about the bralettes and g-strings designed for them, and the sexy Bratz Babyz dolls. But tell us about the magazines for young girls -- are they really so bad?

Melinda Tankard Reist: An analysis of the three most popular magazines for young girls -- Barbie Magazine, Total Girl and Disney Girl -- showed that about 50 per cent of the content of the last two was sexualising material. For Barbie it was no less than 75 per cent. This is really bad because these magazines are aimed at girls from five or six years old and up. Around a third of girls aged six to 12 read one or more of them. The pages are full of advice on fashion, beauty and products. Lip gloss, perfumes, deoderants and hair styling products are promoted as must-haves for primary school girls. Along with this they can get "hot gossip". Little girls are shown how to look and behave like pop stars, including how to do "sexy" dance moves.

One Barbie Magazine issue was touted as a "cute crush issue", with images of teenage boys and men up to 30 years of age and comments such as "who's your celeb dream date". This can lead to girls being prepped for sexual advances from men. We know that this is happening to some girls who use social networking sites on the internet. Popular culture, including magazines, prepare them to be approached by men sexually and the internet provides the opportunity. An Australian, Jim Bell, who served time for child pornography offences, wrote an article justifying himself on precisely this ground. He said society allowed sexualised images of children in television, pop music and fashion, and the world of internet child porn merely completes the process. He had a point.

MercatorNet: You cite the Australia Institute report, Corporate Paedophilia -- is that too strong a term for this sexualization of little girls?

Tankard Reist: The phrase was invented by Phillip Adams, an Australian broadcaster and columnist. It is very prescient -- even though the corporations who use little children in their marketing hate it. The phrase highlights the way little girls are treated as sexual fodder for the flogging of products. It's all about extending the market for products -- corporations and advertisers are looking to younger and younger girls to both sell products and to be target markets for those products. As a result, the vulnerability and dignity of children gets sacrificed. They become objects, things to use. It's crept up on us so that we have hardly noticed.

MercatorNet: What are the effects this "girl-poisoning culture" is having or is likely to have on the generation -- girls and boys -- growing up now?

Melinda: Young girls are not emotionally equipped to process these messages. It's difficult for them when abandoned to their autonomy, to resist outside pressure. Exposing them to airbrushed, sexualised and thin images of other women makes them feel worse about themselves -- it affects their wellbeing and self-esteem. Let me quote the American Psychological Association:

"In addition to leading to feelings of shame and anxiety, sexualising treatment and self-objectification can generate feelings of disgust toward one's physical self. Girls may feel they are 'ugly' and 'gross' or untouchable… Strong empirical evidence indicates that exposure to ideals of sexual attractiveness in the media is associated with greater body dissatisfaction among girls and young women."

We are seeing the effects of this sexual objectification on the bodies of young women in self-destructive behaviour such as excessive dieting and eating disorders, drug taking and binge drinking, self harm, anxiety, depression, lower academic performance and ill health. As the APA also points out, this trend not only reflects sexist attitudes but probably increases the risks of sexual violence against women and girls. I would say, certainly.

MercatorNet: People are buying this stuff and letting their children buy it. Aren't the mothers and fathers to blame? I mean, no money = no sales = no industry.

Tankard Reist: It is too simplistic just to blame parents. Parents are up against it and often feel powerless to hold back the tide of sexual imagery and negative messages which flood our communities. There needs to be a whole of society approach. I agree with the view that "it takes a village" to raise good children. Unfortunately the village has become toxic. We need governments, regulatory bodies and other agencies to ban sexualised representations of children and to do something to stop the pornification of every aspect of daily life.

Why are violent and degrading lyrics allowed in music targeted at young people? Why isn't there compulsory internet filtering so children can be protected from internet predators? Why do our kids have to be exposed to open displays of porno magazines and billboards featuring half naked women in sexualised poses, while walking or being driven to school? Yes parents can say no and not buy certain products but a lot more needs to happen than this to force those who have all the power, to change their ways.

MercatorNet: How have you dealt with the pressures in bringing up your children?

Tankard Reist: It is very hard. You try to protect them, but it is just about impossible unless you lock them up. I suppose I try to teach them media literacy -- to recognise harmful messages, to teach them they are more than the sum of their parts, to help them explore their gifts and abilities and develop other facets of their lives. Like many of my friends, we do what we can to equip them to live above the sludge of a sick society , to live counter-culturally, and to make a positive mark on the world.

MercatorNet: Faking It is a kind of antidote to the sexualising magazines. Who in particular is the report aimed at?

Tankard Reist: It is aimed primarily at younger women, by exposing the messages they're sold in magazines about being sexually available, looking "hot", attracting men, and buying tons of products to try to improve their looks -- and of course, never gaining an ounce of weight. Our magazine-style report is something of a parody of beauty and fashion magazines, with headings on the front like, "Of Course You're Not Hot!" and "The Stick Insect Diet". But it contains serious research which we hope will help girls to reject the hyper-sexualised and objectifying messages they are inundated with and to search for something beyond the vacuous air-headedness of the cult of celebrity. I think any woman, actually, will find it helpful. Along with educators and anyone involved in advocacy for girls.

MercatorNet: Corporate Pedophilia, Faking It -- what do you hope will happen next to counteract and halt this trend?

Tankard Reist: Women's Forum Australia wants to be part of a new global movement of women and girl advocacy . It is happening already -- we are being besieged with messages from all over the world from people who have also had enough of this toxic culture. Now we want to harness this sense of outrage and turn it into a force for change. We hope that the issue will be addresses at all levels, from government bodies regulating advertising standards to the magazine editors themselves. The editors particularly because they have great power to put positive messages in their publications and makes girls feel good about themselves.

Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and the founding director of Women's Forum Australia. She lives in the Australian Federal capital, Canberra, with her husband David and four children.

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