Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Standing up for Children: Hardy Girls Healthy Women

Several recent research studies have confirmed the fact that our children are being bombarded with sexualized and gendered messages. A recent study (McCabe, Fairchild, Grauerholz, Pescosolido, & Tope, 2011) examined the representation of males and females in children’s books across the twentieth century and found that male characters are represented in children’s book twice as often as female characters. Animal characters were especially more likely to be males, so all of those books for small children that are out there are more likely to have male characters. We see this same pattern in G-rated movies aimed at children (Smith, Pieper, Granados, & Choueiti , 2010) and in popular children’s television shows. This article talks about the “gender divide” in children’s toys and the research behind it, questioning the pink/blue narrative that we have all come to recognize in the toy aisle.

In this post on the Achilles Effect, Crystal Smith, an advocate for boys, argues that when boys are not exposed to interesting female characters, it limits the way that they learn to understand and think about females. Many have also argued that when girls do not see female characters as protagonists, they cannot conceive of females as heroes or see themselves as the center of an important story, mainly their own. I plan to share more about some organizations that support healthy growth in boys later this week, but today I’d like to introduce you to a great organization that supports healthy growth in girls.

Hardy Girls Healthy Women is a social-change organization committed to changing the culture in which girls are growing. They describe their mission to “connect girls with the people and resources that help them transform their surroundings into safe havens; and we empower girls with knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a platform for activism.” What a great mission! One of the things that I love about HGHW is that it provides a host of support for girls of all ages. While their programs are locally based, they have webinars, workshops, and institutes that anyone can attend. HGHW also has a great list of online resources to support girls and the adults in their lives. They say,

“Girls today are bombarded with images and messages conjured up by the media and other corporate giants in their quests to make money from girls’ insecurities and self-doubts. Girls experience cultural pressures to conform to an “ideal” image of thin, sexy, boy-crazy shoppers at far too young an age. The 3,000 media images they see on any given day paint a picture of an ideal girl no real girl can match up to. It’s no wonder that nearly 80% of preteen girls are on some form of diet and that girls as young as eight years old feel enormous stress and pressure to be pretty, thin, accommodating, and popular. For far too many girls the pressure to measure up is too much and they turn to drugs, alcohol, eating disorders and self-harm to cope. At the same time, they are made to feel in competition with each other, more often than not, leading to girl fighting. The problem isn’t the girls; the problem is the messages they are getting from the culture.”

With curriculum created by top authors and researchers, HGHW has some great resources for helping children become savvy media consumers. One of the overarching messages from this organization is that we need to be teaching our children to be media activists. In this article, one of the founders of HGHW, Lyn Mikel Brown, talks about the importance of teaching adolescents to let their own voices be heard. Using their creativity and the media production skills that many of them already have, we can encourage tweens and teens to speak up for themselves. A great example of this is in the Candie’s anti-campaign that I joined in with SPARK Summit. My sixth grader loved creating her own ad to make a point to Candie’s. A group of seventh graders at our local middle school recently held a “no make-up” day to make the point that they don’t want to be judged by their appearance. Adolescents are at a developmental stage where they are ready to become activists and are interested in societal change for the better. They want to make a difference in the world. When the adults in their lives support them and give them tools to advocate for change, they will find their voices and become world changers. Now that’s an exciting thought!

Janice McCabe,  Emily Fairchild, Liz Grauerholz, Bernice A. Pescosolido, & Daniel Tope (2011). Gender in twentieth-century children’s books: Patterns of disparity in titles and central characters. Gender & Society, 25:197.

Stacy L. Smith & Katherine M. Pieper & Amy Granados & Marc Choueiti (2010). Assessing Gender-Related Portrayals in Top-Grossing G-Rated Films. Sex Roles (2010) 62:774–786 DOI 10.1007/s11199-009-9736-z

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