Monday, April 22, 2013

Self-Image: Teaching Our Children To Question The Stereotypes

Is it possible to steer your child clear of self-image
issues when you are still working through your own?
I believe I may remember every unkind word ever directed at me. Funny, isn't it, how easy it is to believe the mean or thoughtless things people say about you? 

I remember a well-intentioned great aunt telling me I could "stop traffic" if I would just lose some weight. I remember that moment so well that I can still picture the corner we were standing on, the feeling in my stomach, even the brown, Frye boots I was wearing. 

As a child, women all around me struggled with their own body image issues and no one ever talked about it except to talk about dieting. I grew up internalizing that how I looked was not okay. Now I look at my 6-year old daughter, whose body is like mine in many ways, and wonder how self-image will unfold for her. 

Society is different in many ways than it was when I was her age, but does that mean things for girls are easier these days? Or has raising a daughter who feels comfortable in her own skin gotten even harder than it was just a generation ago? And how can we teach our boys to treat girls with respect if all they are shown is that a girl's main value is her looks? And what about our boys? Can they show emotions, be sweet and sincere or do they risk being dropped from the inner circle of cool?

Our culture generally accepts a particular standard of beauty and a narrow definition of masculinity without question, and it is passed on from generation to generation. Media perpetuates it, and these stereotypes are subtly (or not so subtly) shown to our children in every way from the movies they watch to the magazines that lie on our coffee tables. 

How can we raise our boys and girls to feel connected to their inner worth when all around them they are told that it is what is on the outside that matters? How can we teach them to be sincere and be themselves when they are bombarded with  messages that being who they are isn't necessarily enough?

As my children get older they have more access to media. And because they can now read, they are more aware of the advertising all around them. These, and other things, mean my job has gotten just a bit harder. I know I can't shield them forever. My role really is to be a guide and help them learn how to think critically about everything they see around them. 

I've realized that this also means I need to be able to really articulate and discuss my thoughts on everything from the fact that there is only one female Smurf (who seems to have no skills other than being pretty) to why there are no male fairies in the Rainbow Fairies book series. Every new thing our children experience has an impact on their growing sense of who they are in this world.

Whether you have body image issues or not, whether you consider yourself a feminist or not, whether you have a boy or a girl (or both), it's your responsibility to help your children learn to question what the world tells them they need to be, do or look like in order to be "good enough". 

"It's all about popular!
It's not about aptitude
It's the way you're viewed
So it's very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me!"
~ Kristen Chenoweth, Wicked

Kate Winslet has the right idea.
Start With Yourself
  • Do project a healthy body image in front of your children.
  • Don't talk about things like dieting, counting calories or feeling fat.
  • Don't talk about other people in terms of how their bodies look. Pay attention to your own feelings about what's important in a person. Be mindful of what you choose to focus on.
  • Definitely don't talk about your children's bodies except to tell them they are perfect. 
  • Do talk about how much you love things about yourself. Not in a vain way, but in such a way that your children know that whatever you look like, you like yourself. 
  • Do remind your children (and yourself) that beauty isn't the be all and end all. The idea that everyone is beautiful is a wonderful thing, but is being beautiful the ultimate goal we should be striving for? 
  • Do read this gorgeous post from Kiyah of Our Regularly Scheduled Program: 
"A few months ago I wrote about the degree to which girls are praised for their looks, and how infrequently we ask them questions that relate to their interests or hobbies (or directly engage their intellectual curiosity), so when I heard Tim (who is the kind of father that would rather encourage Eleanor’s love of books, or bugs, than eye shadow or handbags) tell Eleanor that she had a beautiful body I wondered where he was going with it." 
Pay Attention To Your Reading Materials

I indulge in magazines like People or US when I'm getting my nails done, and I admit I enjoy those frivolous moments. I never have those magazines in my home, though. Not because they're not intellectually stimulating, but because of the sort of pictures and headlines they feature.  

I don't want my kids worrying about whether their "beach body" is good or bad. I don't want my kids internalizing that a pregnant woman needs to "get thin fast" once she has her baby. 

It's not just the covers, either. The thing is, if you start to look at magazines (all of them, not just tabloids) from our children's view point, you begin to see how women's bodies are portrayed in advertising. Men fare a bit better, but it's still very obvious what is considered attractive - and by comparison, what is not attractive. As adults we have become numb to these messages because we have had year after year of bombardment. But do we want our children to be likewise inured?
  • Be mindful of what types of magazines you have in your home. Notice what written messages are on the covers, notice what images are given prominence. Even if your children aren't directly asking about them, they notice them. 
  • Take the time to point out things you notice in the magazines you do have. Ask your children what they think about the photographs. Do the people look happy? What are their bodies like? Do their bodies look like people they know? Do the clothes they are wearing look like something you could run and climb and have fun in? 
  • Talk about what you see. By discussing your thoughts about the things your children see, you are expressing your family's views and how you see the world. Ask your children what they think about various pictures and talk about whatever misconceptions they may have. I would rather have children hear my point of view on a sexy magazine photo, than make up their own meanings about it.
Talk About Movies, Television, and Books

I've written a number of times about my dislike for many of the movies that are targeted at children and the need for parents to be mindful of the messages they send to the still-developing minds of our kids. In addition to the violence and aggression many movies show, there is a much subtler danger lurking in many of these films.
Is there a reason why every other smurf character
has a name that has to do with his job or a
characteristic (brainy, farmer etc.) except her?


How many of you have noticed how few female characters are in children's films (unless it happens to be a movie about a princess)? If there are females, the ratio of male to female is, with very few exceptions, skewed in favor of males. How many of the films for children have a female character for the lead? Most of them, like the aforementioned Smurfs, have only one token female who is usually there as a love interest or, as Margot Magowan of Reel Girl refers to it, to be "the minority feisty"
"If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include a token strong female character or two who reviewers will call “feisty.” In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Astrid; in “Toy Story,” Jessie; in “Ratatouille,” Colette. She’s supposed to make us feel like the movie is contemporary and feminist, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear. 
The problem is that because Pixar or Disney has so magnanimously thrown in this “feisty” female (who may even have some commentary about sexism or male domination) we’re no longer supposed to care that almost all of the other characters in the film are male, including the star who the movie is often titled for and usually his best buddy as well. The crowd scenes in the film are also made up of mostly males."
What's the big deal, you may ask? You can't be what you can't see. That's the big deal. How is my daughter supposed to know that she can be a scientist or a chef or an writer if she never sees or reads about anyone like herself doing those jobs? How is my son supposed to know that girls can be in leadership roles if he never sees that portrayed in movies or reads about it in books? 
“To be able to become the real life version of a superhero, to be able to become president, to be able to become the big scientist, you need to see it in something. You need to be able to imagine it. And so therefore girls need imaginary super heros because they need to know they are strong, they need to know they can go out and tackle villains and take on the world and that their gender is not an obstacle.” ~ Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines 
What if male super heroes posed like
female ones? ~ image via Kevin Bolk
What roles do children take on when what they see around them is that females play bit parts and are so often shown as the minority - even though they make up 50% of the world population? How do girls measure their worth when they are constantly praised for their looks as opposed to their talents or their interests?

"Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she's reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You're just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. 

For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does." ~ Lisa Bloom, How To Talk To Little Girls
  • Talk about movie advertising with your children and ask them their thoughts. Ask questions like "Why doesn't Juliet even appear on many of the billboards for the movie Gnomeo and Juliet?" Or, "Why do you think this movie about Rapunzel was named Tangled instead?" Once children begin to see the way advertising is manipulated, they are less likely to just accept whatever is put in front of them as truth.
  • If your children like super heroes, you might think about asking them something like "Why are all the male super heroes always shown doing something, while the female ones are just posing and showing off their bodies?" Or ask them "If you were Wonder Woman (or any number of other super heroines) do you think you would wear high heels and have your hair out like that? Does that look like an easy way to fight crime?"
  • Point out the positives just as much as the negatives. We just saw the new movie "The Croods" and, much to my surprise, it was fantastic! In addition to beautiful animation and a funny story that wasn't too scary or laced with inappropriate humor, The Croods also has awesome female characters! They're smart, they do stuff, there are a lot of them, their bodies are muscular and strong and the story, although about the whole family, focuses on a father/daughter relationship. All great things!
And What About Toys?

Swedish toy catalogue showing gender-neutral advertising
is so unusual that it made the news. Read full article here
There has been so much written about the effects of gendered toys that I doubt I have anything new to add to the debate, but I would urge you to consider that unless the toys are operated by your child's genitals, there is no such thing as a "boy's toy" or "girl's toy". 

Apparently Hasbro doesn't agree and has decided to launch a line of gender specific Play-Doh sets, 

"...because apparently young girls all across the land are screaming their heads off at their parents’ inability to provide them with only pink and glittery objects. Lego are already at it and now it seems that no toy will ever escape this ‘girlification’ (to coin a phrase)." ~ D'oh! Play Doh

By not discussing the sexism in the toy aisles, it is not surprising that many children grow up believing boys are blue, active, like math and science, build things and drive things. Oh yeah, and boys like war and violence apparently as well. Girls, on the other hand, are pink and pretty, they might cook or take care of babies and put on make up. Of course there are exceptions, but walk into any American Toys 'R Us or Walmart and you will see what I mean.

Last year The New York Times wrote an excellent article about gender-based toy marketing titled Guys And Dolls, No More?:
"IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress. 
If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression."
It boggles my mind that parents simply accept the way things are marketed toward our children in a gender-specific way as truth and think there is no harm in it. It makes me cringe when I hear women gossiping about other women in front of their young daughters. I want to cry when I hear parents tell their young boys to "man up!"

When I look at my own children I see more than just a pretty girl and a rough and tumble boy. I'm sure you do as well. Of course there's nothing wrong with our daughters wanting to be princesses and mommies, or our sons playing pirates and ninjas. But to me there is something wrong with not teaching our children that there is so much more than the narrow stereotypes that advertisers and marketing teams have tried to squeeze our children into. And there is something definitely wrong with a world in which children grow up not feeling as though the way they are isn't absolutely, perfectly wonderful. 

If You Want More Information To Consider...
  • I highly recommend watching this PBS Documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. One reviewer remarked that, this PBS production by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Kelcey Edwards, "makes an important point seriously and well: that in comic books, as in most of the rest of American life, women have too often been underestimated and undervalued." The film aired on PBS already, but is available for free at the above link until mid-June.
  • This terrific documentary, Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity, is very much worth watching. This film "systematically examines the relationship between pop-cultural imagery and the social construction of masculine identities in the U.S. at the dawn of the 21st century." 
  • This trailer for the film, Miss Representation, is also very moving. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and is now available on DVD. "The film exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. The film challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself." (also, check out the trailer for their campaign called #NotBuyingIt)

And finally, this excellent 1-minute video of Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wanabees, from Kids in The House. In it, Ms. Wiseman discusses "Girl World" and ways to help your daughter survive it. If you like this one, check out the rest of her more than 30 videos - they're all really good.

A Few Great People, Blogs and Websites To Follow, Read and Learn From:

The Geena Davis Institute: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under.

Pigtail Pals: Pigtail Pals is dedicated to changing the way we think about girls. Melissa Wardy's blog educates parents on media literacy, marketing, sexualization, gender stereotypes, and body image. She also has a huge list of suggested reading and websites to check out if you're interested in this subject which you can access here.

Reel Girl: Margot Magowan writes about politices, media and and culture for her blog and many other outlets. The blog's mission is to "imagine gender equality in the fantasy world". To read more about Margot and her work, click here.

A Mighty Girl: The world's largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls. Their products are definitely aimed at girls, but I wouldn't hesitate from buying many of their things for my son as well. Boys need to read about women too! For an excellent book for girls ages 10 to 14 on understanding the media messages related to beauty and body image, A Mighty Girl recommended “All Made Up”.

For many stories of girls and women who confronted stereotypes and overcame discrimination, visit their "Discrimination & Prejudice" section, sortable by various types of discrimination on the left menu bar.

Shaping Youth: Terrific discussions about the media and marketing's influence on young children. 

Rosalind Wiseman: Rosalind Wiseman is an internationally recognized author and educator on children, teens, parenting, education and social justice. Her work aims to help parents, educators and young people successfully navigate the social challenges of young adulthood. She is also the author of "Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World" and the forthcoming "Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World"

And so many more...
Share it!
Tweet it!
"Like" The Twin Coach on Facebook!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...