What does an ideal girl look like? Is she blonde, with a perfect figure and a Chihuahua in her purse? Or is she the brunette with the looks of Megan Fox? Is her favorite physical activity shopping? Media outlets are busy promoting such stereotypes about girlhood. The logic is simple: when girlhood is mainly about looking good, companies that cater to such a “need” will profit.
For instance, toy companies seem to be selling social identities rather than just toys. Girl toys in the Toys R Us online catalog for 2-year-olds include play houses, oven makers and newborn doll strollers–but boy toys include trains, walker pianos and fire engines. Neurobiologist and author of the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain Lise Eliot argues that the brains of boys and girls are not different at birth. Yet, Toys R Us and the plethora of toy companies would rather defy science and create such gender differences in an attempt to maximize sales. The message they give to our girls is that decorative and homemaking skills must become a priority very early on in life.
It all started in the 1980s when marketing expert James McNeal suggested that targeting products to children at birth would improve customer loyalty. Basically, the idea was that a consumer at birth would be a consumer for life. Companies have faithfully taken his advice. Juliet Schor, author of the book Born to Buy, explains that marketers are eager to target children under age 8 because they cannot spot the commercial intent of advertisements. Instead, kids consider ads information outlets!
To make matters worse, marketers persuade girls by manipulating their developmental patterns. Schor suggests that children learn to behave age-appropriately by observing and emulating adults around them and they are especially drawn to the freedom and style exhibited by teenagers. Thus, by creating a tween market that targets 8- to 12-year-old girls with products that promote them as sexy, popular and overly obsessed with their looks and what guys think of them, companies have maximized sales. A case in point is the retailer Sweet George Brown, which opened a line of body oil for 6 year old girls, called “Follow Me, Boy!” Even more troubling is the use of 10-year-old models for designer bikinis.
Companies use a myriad of techniques to target girls to shop. Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids, explains that marketers hire child psychologists to measure how much their products make children pester their parents to buy it. Corporations even make their way into slumber parties: organizations such as Girls Intelligence Agency recruits girls as young as 6, and give them “slumber party boxes” containing fashion and glamor product samples for distribution to their friends. Here’s the link to their site and a list of their “faithful” sponsors.
If you thought young girls could be protected in the boundaries of their school environment, think again! Linn points out that corporate sponsors of public schools set up cameras in lunch rooms to understand what 8-year-old kids want, so that these companies can then market new products accordingly! Moreover, outraged teachers are petitioning against the famous school book club Scholastics, whose booklists have more to do with lip gloss, jewelery and key chains than books. Check out this petition link for more information.
Perhaps the most effective of all marketing techniques used by corporations would be the use of celebrities. A Girl Guide poll from 2008 showed that 42 percent of girls mainly looked to celebrities for inspiration. But, female celebrities in the media are mainly worshiped only for their looks, their hairdos, what they wear and who they date.
The message they embody is “your success in life depends on how you look”. They represent an “ideal girlhood” that can only be attained by seeking the right products. Girlhood becomes commodified: it becomes a mold that companies stamp onto girls. It becomes something that can be bought from a store, rather than something requiring inner reflection and the pursuit of individual standards of beauty or success.
I can’t help but notice the similarities in commodified girlhood and cosmetic surgery: marketers tell girls that in order to be successful they should be: cool, sexy and brainless, which is similar to a plastic surgeon who attempts to create the ideal body part by getting rid of the deviations. Anything that strays from these standards is simply unacceptable and needs to be cut out. The end result is a very generic girl, an identity that can be bought. But, isn’t it the “not so ideal” parts of us that make us truly unique?
What are your thoughts about the commodification of girlhood? Should there be a boundary for corporations to adhere to when it comes to maximizing sales at the cost of our children’s mental health? How do your purchases support or oppose the “ideal girl” image? Why not make a lasting resolution and choose to help girls reach their full potential in life, instead of fitting into a commercial mold?
— Sheena J