Parent, Educator, Author
In this insightful article, Samantha Ettus draws a connection between the gender stereotypes that are constantly presented to girls in children’s media and product marketing and the ambition gap that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discusses in this video from the World Economic Forum.
Sandberg talks about the ways that girls are taught by our culture to have different expectations of themselves. When they are being bombarded by products that promote “hanging out” and “getting ready for parties” such as what you see in this new LEGO Friends commercial, this is what our girls believe is important. We see products for girls that say things like “I’m too pretty to do math” and the ubiquitous “sassy” and “flirty” splashed across even infant clothing. Even girls who want to achieve and succeed in areas beyond their appearance feel the pressure of going against this stereotype, and it affects their performance academically. For more on this phenomenon, which is called, Stereotype Threat, see this post.
What do we think is going to happen when girls are constantly being told that their goal in life, their value, lies primarily in how they look? Today I went to an “Invention Convention” held in my 7-year-old daughter’s 2nd grade classroom. Each child either chose an inventor to talk about or made their own invention. Both boys and girls were excited to be learning, to be challenged, to think about being inventors who could create something wonderful for the world. But these are the same girls who I heard not long ago talking about how eating ice cream makes you fat. 7-year-old children were worried about eating ice cream! Now, if some of them had been overweight already, I might have thought perhaps they had heard this from their doctor and were on an eating plan for better health. But no, these were all healthy young girls. Where are they getting these messages? Likely these messages are coming from home, peers and media. And this appearance monitoring affects them, and becomes even stronger and more distracting as they get older. Middle school girls lose interest in STEM areas in droves and begin focusing more on their appearance and romantic relationships.
We are sending our daughters ridiculously mixed messages. We tell them, “you can be anything!” but darn it you better be beautiful and thin while doing that. We have commentators on news channels discussing the appearance of our female politicians. Hillary Clinton gets criticized for being “too masculine” and “haggard” while other female politicians or political nominees get asked if they’ve had plastic surgery. Really? What about asking about where they stand on political issues? What does this say to young girls? That no matter how smart they are, no matter how creative, no matter how kind, what really matters at the end of the day is how they look.
We must be about more than this! As adults, we must be teaching ALL children that they are more than their physical appearance. Their worth comes from their internal qualities that can be developed like their talents, their intelligence, their kindness and character. Adults must start pushing back on these ridiculous stereotyped ideas that teach our girls to value their appearance above anything. We can do this in some specific ways:
There are incredibly powerful women like Sandberg pushing this issue, and there are child experts and activists asking parents and companies to think more closely about the messages that we are sending girls about their value. We must stand up and be willing to push this issue or there will continue to be an ambition gap. Children learn in context, and if they are being told that female value lies in appearance, that is what they will learn. Let’s stand up and teach them a different lesson, the lesson that female value is so much more than how they look, that it is about who they are.
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