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‘Rescuing our daughters’

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2007

With Paris Hilton bouncing in and out of jail and Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears in and out of rehab, girls often see images of sex and bad behavior as symbols of power and independence.

Even the phrase "girl power" has taken on new meaning as marketers and the entertainment industry have changed the phrase from meaning "change the world" to "go shopping and be sexy," but two professors are trying to change this way of thinking.

In a new book titled, "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes," Sharon Lamb, professor of psychology at St. Michael's College, and Lyn Mikel Brown, professor of education and human development at Colby College, show how these industries enforce stereotypes and present girls with fewer choices for their future.

Miss Brown said the industry uses the power of language to encourage girls to create an identity around shopping and physical self-improvement.

"So much written towards girls is about liking to shop and being a diva," Miss Brown said. "It's no longer about changing the world; it's about changing yourself."

The writers encourage parents to analyze what their daughters see, hear and wear in terms of how girlhood is packaged and sold to them by talking with their daughters about what they observe from the media.

"We encourage parents to help her read the world and read it well so she can make choices," Miss Brown said. "There will be a point in her life where everything that we have done to contain her world and help her make good choices ... where we don't have the power to do that anymore."

Miss Brown says she and Miss Lamb came up with the idea to write a book about these trends after noticing that many of their female college students told them they gained self-esteem by being sexy.

"There were a lot of young women who would come through our courses who said they get a lot of self-esteem from being sexy," Miss Brown said. "We asked our students to go out and see how they were packaged for the world."

The book tells parents to start talking with their daughters about images and stereotypes when they are young.

"Although she has sucked up a lot of visual images by age 3 or 4, the age when gender identification begins to settle in and gather some permanence, she will be listening more closely to your thinking about what it means to be a girl and the kind of choices you'd like her to have as she grows up," the book says.

Miss Brown, the mother of a 12-year-old girl, said she encourages parents to help their daughters identify the stereotypes and have a critical eye on the media.

"Parents say they're scared but we say jump in and engage it," Miss Brown said. "Closing our eyes doesn't make it go away. We have to be involved with it."

The book says parents also must learn to resist pop culture by not being "pulled into the pink and pretty stuff for the young girl as well as the glamorous 'hot' and fun-looking stuff for the middle-schoolers."

"These things are pretty and they are cute even when we know we're being sold a narrow image of how a girl should dress, think, act and be."

Miss Brown said the images and messages have become more sophisticated and girls need help identifying these new strategies.

"It's getting more sophisticated every day. They're using social networking sites to market [to] kids, like MySpace and Facebook," Miss Brown said. "Their getting more subversive by placing ads in their GameBoy games."

The book gives parents three basic principles to follow when speaking with their daughters.

First, parents should do their homework before approaching their daughter about something they find disturbing.

"The very first things we want parents to do is to do their homework and to know what's out there for her, but also to identify what our feelings are about it," Miss Brown said. "We might be overreacting or underreacting and we must listen to her because the world is so different from the one we grew up in."

Secondly, Miss Brown encourages parents to listen to what their daughter likes and figure out why she likes it.

They wrote that there are good reasons why girls are pulled in certain directions and parents can understand this if they see things from their daughter's perspective.

Lastly, parents should "bring their daughters the world on their terms using their views."

The authors write that it is important not to "bulldoze her with your views or shut her down; instead, bring her the world on your terms instead, as an informed, rational, compassionate adult in her life."

"We find girls and boys are really smart and tech-savvy and they can handle it in some ways better than us," Miss Brown said. "If we don't start helping them know how to consume it, we sort of are throwing them to the wolves and we really need to get parents on this issue."