Why celebrities, fashion trend and other pop culture are damaging the path toward female empowerment for today's girly youth – and how some moms and young girls are fighting back
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked my 7-year-old daughter Eliana.
"Somebody who can be anything," she said on a break from playing restaurant with her brothers. The kitchen table was littered with glasses of grape juice-ice-and blueberries (homemade snow cones) and a piece of paper with writing in green marker telling the day's specials.
She thought for a minute, her blond hair held back with a thick headband, still in pajamas at 10:30 on a Sunday morning. "I want to be a teacher," she said finally. "Because I would get to read a lot of books. I might change my mind when I grow up, but it seems really cool to be a teacher."
My daughter, like so many young girls today, is excited by fashion and likes to dab garish shadow on her eyelids or pink shiny gloss on her lips. But she doesn't wear jeans that reveal her butt crack or low-dipping tank tops.
It helps that her school has a dress code (no bare midriffs or spaghetti straps). Her favorite pop role models are Miley Cyrus (cringe), Taylor Swift (OK) and Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers (good family values).
When Eliana was a baby, I balked at Baby Gap's array of "cleavage"-accentuating tanks for chubby baby girls. I was surprised by the message of sexualization of even our youngest fashionistas.
Despite a long, increasingly steep, uphill battle for female empowerment, girls today are facing a big push to keep them in a very limited role. "It's attempts by the old status quo of trying even harder to keep women in their place," says Ellen Yashinsky Chute, LMSW, ACSW. "As women move forward, the attempts to keep them where they used to be grow and intensify, especially because most of industry is run by rich, white men."
Marketing makeup to kids
A Wall Street Journal article, "It's Just Lip Gloss, Mom," showed just how much makeup companies are marketing to their youngest clientele. Walmart Stores recently launched a line of makeup products for tweens called geoGirl with names based on texting – BCNU ("be seeing you") powder shadow, F2F ("face to face") moisture tint and SWAK ("sent with a kiss") lip treatment.
Target last year began selling Hello Kitty cosmetics and this year will expand its e.l.f. makeup line to include tween items. Makeup guru Bobbi Brown thinks it's no big deal that younger girls are dabbling in makeup. And research shows that most American parents agree with her – 64 percent buy cosmetics for their kids.
Gabriella Burman is not one of them. The Huntington Woods mother of three daughters says, "Modesty is not so much what you wear but how you comport yourself. As much as we love fashion and work out at the gym and try to look as good as possible, and we are influenced ourselves by celebrity tabloids, we have to remember the reason we became parents – it's about having love to give and bestowing that love on children and bringing them into the world because you believe they have a purpose that's completely not material."
Unfortunately, Burman's message is drowned out by the plethora of media mania telling little girls to wear tight clothes, focus on their face and strive to be mean millionaires.
They're getting it from every direction: As the marketing front floods the market with appearance-focused products, TV and popular culture isn't helping. Reality shows that emphasize clothing, body and bad behavior send the same superficial message.
"We definitely have a preoccupation with objectifying women and girls," says Chute. "Think about the pictures of two-month-old baby girls with stretchy headbands – we as parents buy into indoctrinating our little girls into this culture of being beautiful and that that matters."
Growing up in Hong Kong before she moved to Grosse Pointe, 16-year-old Zoe Hu says the media and pop culture in both places send "an underlying message that girls should strive to be beautiful and become the ideal of beauty."
In Hong Kong, the preferred female had pale skin and dark hair while here, Hu says, "it's being tan and blond." Regardless of the specifics, there is an emphasis on looks and appearance and striving to fulfill a beauty ideal.
"It's not a good thing at all," she says. But that doesn't mean Hu and her peers succumb to the superficial. They enjoy fashion and pop culture as much as any girls but don't give in to the pressure to fulfill someone else's image of beauty.
"I don't feel like there is a set definition of beauty that I have to strive to achieve," Hu says. "There is a double standard, though. A girl can strive to have a good career and be the boss or CEO but there will always be that 'Oh she's cold-hearted or she's cruel, she doesn't really want a family.' Whereas a man can do the same thing and he'll be the high-achiever."
"All of my friends know that if they work hard, they can achieve almost anything," Hu says. "I don't have a friend who wants to be the housewife or the stay-at-home mom."
Chute blames social media, cell phone and the Internet with communicating this message of superficiality.
"We are blasted with so many messages from so many sources – Hollywood's chosen body type represents less than 5 percent of the actual population and when you don't see those images, what you see are stereotypical images, mean fat women or jolly fat women or older women who are loony," says Chute. "You don't see a normal person who's wrangling with life issues and has good times and bad times."
The best role models for girls today, says Chute, are the adult women in their lives.
"We shouldn't stop fighting these stereotypical images of us, but we must remember that the very best thing we can give our daughters or the girls in our life is the knowledge of who they are besides how they look," she says. "That's the legacy we leave – to help girls know they have choices. There are constraints, but those constraints do not indicate who they are as human beings."
Having higher standards
Steve Jasgur, a Birmingham father of two daughters, is already considering karate and other "empowering" classes for his eldest daughter, who exhibits some shyness.
"It's important to us that our daughters are confident," he says. "We keep the TV off more often than not. When they do watch, we allow programs like Dora, which show empowered girls."
As most little girls do, Jasgur's daughters "love all the princesses. We have costumes around the house, but we've made a point of buying a doctor outfit and a policewoman costume, so they can experiment with other roles than just princesses, who tend to focus almost entirely on appearance and landing a prince."
Jasgur is also owner of Joe Cornell Entertainment, a Southfield company that sells out its annual sixth grade dance and etiquette program. The program, which teaches 300 kids every year, has a formal dress code – slacks and a tucked-in button-down shirt for boys and knee-length or longer skirt or dress pants for girls.
"Pop culture has allowed boys to get sloppier," says Jasgur. "We teach social confidence, and how we dress is an important part of that. We explain this at the first class every season, with parents present, so they can help us reinforce what we believe to be a very important part of the confidence equation.
"We all behave differently when we're dressed nicely," he says. "We frame it in the context of learning to dance, but it applies to everyday life, too."
Adds Jasgur, "At 11 years old, our students hear the message better from someone other than their parents.
"What we teach is sadly missing from popular culture. We teach tweens that if you want to feel good about yourself, think about how you put yourself together – the picture of yourself not only projects to the public, it impacts your own self-confidence, too."
Pressure from society and peers
Carol Restovic has struggled to find appropriate clothing for her two daughters since they were little.
"You can't find anything that's not low-cut or skinny jeans," says the Eastpointe mother of four. "What the media and entertainment industry portray as cool – low-rise, tight in the tush – I don't think my daughters think their identity is even important."
To whit, her 8-year-old daughter says she doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up other than "rich."
"This might be an indication of how society influences people," says Restovic. "My daughter says as soon as she's old enough to work, she wants to work at a cell phone store, so she can get a cell phone. For an 8-year-old, I don't think this should be a goal in life."
Her older daughter, who is 13, doesn't adopt pop culture trends, though. She rejects the conformity ways of most girls in her class, dressing however she wants and listening to her own choice of music.
That's heartening, says Emily Mitnick, a 23-year-old MSU grad, who sees many younger teenage girls wearing the same clothes she and her friends do.
"Girls are maturing at a lot faster of a pace," Mitnick says. "Between social media and reality TV, it's getting out of hand. Style and attire and behavior are so risqué. They're absolutely repressing themselves. You don't have to show cleavage or a lot of skin to have confidence or get noticed."
Young girls must learn that confidence is about who you are inside, not what you look like on the outside, Mitnick says. "Men are the top players in advertising and marketing and as women start to advance, they find ways to push us back."
"Our job as parents is to direct our children and protect them," Burman says. "We want our children to have lives of purpose where they're doing good things in the community and acts of kindness and moving the world forward, advancing human rights and becoming truly progressive."
Laurie Freeman, the Farmington Hills mother of an 8-year-old daughter, strategically only "promoted" a select few of the Disney princesses when her daughter was young: Mulan, Belle and Ariel, "because they were all independent and didn't need a prince to rescue them," she says.
"I also tell her that she can't get married until after she finishes medical school. So far, she's a girl who loves getting her nails done and dressing up but plays ice hockey and softball. She rarely has a temper tantrum or pouts."
The beauty of choice
With strong female role models, as much as society screams its loud message that girls should focus on appearance and take steps to be beautiful and body-focused, girls will learn to be strong and make strides, says Chute.
"We've come to a place of acknowledging how constraining and confining those gender roles are and so we have hopefully given our girls gifts of encouraging them to know more about themselves than just their looks," says Chute. "Your daughter has a choice. Your mom didn't have a choice. Our little girls can play baseball and they can go to medical school and nothing is off-limits to them."
Lianne Paskel, mother of four (including two daughters) and director of the Franklin Dance and Movement Center, says her daughters don't idolize the female pop icons in the Disney machine. Her girls wear clothes that are appropriate for their bodies and appreciate pop culture for the beauty of the music or the message, not the negative influences.
"Girls who feel confident don't need to dress inappropriately," says Paskel. "My only complaint is I don't think girls today are aware of the fights women have been staging for decades. I don't think they realize that women still don't get paid as much as men. They don't understand what the fight is and how far back. We've come a long way, but we still aren't where we could be."
If a mother is happy with herself, especially her physical body as she ages, then her daughters will have a positive self-image, Paskel says.
The proliferation of moms enhancing their cleavage or erasing wrinkles with plastic surgery and Botox does nothing to aid the fight for equality, she says.
"In my dance classes, we talk about how we have so many different shapes and sizes," Paskel says. "It is backwards if women feel they can't accept who they are, aging naturally."
"A generation ago, we were so cloistered and forced into privacy. We could never have admitted that were having Botox," says Chute. "It's a mark of our liberation that we can be casual about it. And choose. I have so much choice that I can be casual about it."