How big business is stealing our little girls’ childhoods: Dolls in micro-skirts, make-up for girls aged four… psychologist Steve Biddulph on the corruption of a generation
Fifteen years ago, psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote a landmark book on the difficulties of raising boys. Back then, he believed girls weren’t a problem. In this major Mail series, he argues everything’s changed – and our daughters are facing an unprecedented crisis. On Saturday, he described how girls are becoming sexualised at a younger and younger age. Today, he examines why girls are increasingly insecure – and how big business preys on them for profit…
What girls really, really want, according to Lego, is their very own version of the popular plastic bricks.
So, recently, the company started producing five curvy plastic ‘friends’ who bake, home-make, decorate, style hair and shop. Plus a plastic female ghetto called Heartlake City, which somehow manages to thrive without any fire-fighters or policemen.
Psychologist Steve Biddulph didn’t used to believe that raising girls presented as many problems as raising boys – but now he feels our daughters are facing an unprecedented crisis, becoming increasingly sexualised and insecure
Naturally, when this new product came out, many mothers were outraged. (‘There IS a girls’ version already – it’s called Lego,’ one woman commented scathingly.)
But Lego had painstakingly done its homework. Its head researcher told a newspaper that they’d discovered girls today have a single overwhelming preoccupation – beauty.
That’s what the new girls’ Lego was built around: the certainty that girls would identify with plastic females who were either already beautiful or about to be made more beautiful through visits to the shops or hair salon.
Now, I’m not arguing with Lego’s finding; in fact, I think it’s a useful indicator of a disturbing new shift in girlhood. The shocking truth is that never in modern times have girls been more insecure. And that’s because, despite 40 years of feminism, their strongest interest can now be encapsulated in just one question: ‘How do I look?’
Long before they’re sexually active, their ‘hotness’ – or attractiveness – has become an obsession; indeed, some girls think of little else. And guess what – it isn’t making them happy.
Bratz dolls, left, are h[per-sexualised toys marketed to girls as young as five, which Steve Biddulph believes is just one commercial product making girls worry about their looks and weight
As a child psychologist, I first began to notice a steep increase in mental health problems among girls five years ago. Many girls from normal middle-class families were suffering from shockingly acute levels of anxiety. Many others had eating disorders – indeed, the latest figures suggest that there’s been a two-fold increase in these in just five years.
But there was also a sense of low-level depression that I hadn’t come across before. And through both my work and my talks with friends and colleagues, I became aware that more and more parents were asking themselves: ‘Why is my daughter so stressed?’
At first, the children affected were at least 13, but each year their ages have been creeping downwards. In short, girlhood no longer seems to be fun any more.
Part of the reason for this, which I dealt with on Saturday, is the recent hyper-sexualisation of our culture, which now affects even children at primary school. But the other is equally pernicious.
WHY ARE GIRLS AHEAD OF BOYS?
Ever wondered why girls often seem to be so far ahead of boys? The answer is simple: their brains are more advanced.
Even in the womb, the brain of a girl is more developed than that of a boy, thanks to oestrogen created by her own body which increases the rate of brain growth.
At birth, they’re already many weeks ahead of boys – and until the age of five or six, the rate at which their brains are developing speeds up still further.
That’s why girls learn to speak in whole sentences, can control their fingers to do neat drawings and even write six to 12 months sooner than boys.
They’re also ready to start school a year earlier.
If girls have to go to a nursery or child-minder, they generally don’t suffer as much at being separated from their parents – though individual children can vary.
Later, girls enter puberty about two years sooner than boys do, turning into young women overnight when the boys seem to be standing still.
They also become adults sooner – the development of girls’ brains finishes several years before boys finally catch up in their early 20s.
From every side, the current generation of girls is continually being bombarded by images that tell them how they’re supposed to look. Not only that, but the range of what constitutes an attractive appearance has grown narrower and more sexualised with each passing year. The result is that body image has become nothing short of a worldwide obsession.
While some girls refuse to eat at all, millions more – roughly a quarter of school-aged children are overweight – are desperately trying to diet. The multi-billion-pound diet industry has spread its tentacles everywhere, to the point that no schoolgirl can avoid them.
What she doesn’t know is that dieting in childhood is highly likely to cause problems in the future. In a recent ground-breaking study, American academic Dr Dianne Neumark-Sztainer revealed that adolescent girls who diet end up significantly heavier than their peers five years later.
Another study which tracked 15,000 children aged nine to 14 found that those put on diets are significantly more likely to gain weight. Worst of all, children on diets are more likely to end up suffering from an eating disorder – such as bulimia or binge eating.
How, then, can we counteract this? The most important step you can take as a parent is to focus on your daughter’s health rather than her weight. Ditch the diet talk, don’t have weight-loss magazines in the house, don’t watch those TV shows that humiliate fat contestants.
It’s also helpful to eat together as a family, replace soft drinks with water, show kids how to eat slowly and encourage them to take more exercise.
But what about all the girls in a normal weight spectru? Why do so many of them hate their bodies and feel they don’t come up to scratch?
BREASTS AT THE AGE OF SEVEN
Alarm bells have been ringing recently with reports that increasing numbers of girls are starting puberty early.
With good reason, too. When a girl of seven or eight develops breasts, it’s bound to cause her some confusion and bring her undue attention that she could really do without.
So is there really an epidemic of early puberty? And what can we do to prevent it happening to our daughters?
The first thing to be said is that more and more girls are growing breasts at a younger age. The vast majority of them, however, won’t have their first period until the average age of just over 12 – which has remained remarkably constant for 40 years. In other words, they’re not going through puberty.
So what’s going on? Researchers found that many of the girls with early breast development did not have the oestrogen ‘oestradiol’, which is linked to puberty, present in their bodies.
This led them to the conclusion that other oestrogen-like chemicals from the environment were triggering a kind of ‘false start’.
And this in turn has raised concern among doctors because early breast growth increases the lifetime risk of cancer.
Meanwhile, parents are rightly concerned that seven or eight-year-olds with breasts are singularly ill-equipped to deal with the attention they attract. Is there anything that can be done to arrest this phenomenon?
The best current advice is to try to avoid contact with chemicals that mimic hormones.
But it’s harder than it sounds. Bisphenol A (BPA) and pthalates occur in products we use every day and in agricultural chemicals that end up in our water and food.
BPA is also present in polycarbonate water bottles and, until recently, in baby bottles. And yes, it does leach out – students in one study who used these bottles had a 69 per cent increase in their levels after just one week.
Worse news is that BPA is also found in the liners of cans that are used for vegetables and soups. This is a much greater source than drink bottles because of the longer exposure that food has to the lining.
If you use baby formula, the powder is a lot safer than liquids. Plastic clingfilm on foods should be avoided, unless you can find one that is BPA-free – and never heat them or microwave them.
Concerned parents should try to use fragrance-free detergents, cleansers, and personal care products – and avoid air fresheners unless their label clearly states ‘pthalate-free.’
Cosmetics can also contain hormone-mimicking pthalates – nail polish and artificial fragrances are common culprits. (Google the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website for details.)
In short, a pregnant mum who works on a checkout, uses nail varnish, enjoys soft drinks out of a can and heats tinned soup for dinner should probably hope for a boy.
Let me give you just one example of how the world has moved on since you were a child: the Bratz doll, launched 13 years ago. One mum, Paula Joye, recently wrote about her disquiet when her five-year-old daughter asked for a Bratz for Christmas.
This is a doll that has swishy, knee-length hair with pastel streaks, hoop earrings and ‘more black kohl eyeliner’ – as Paula puts it – ‘than a Kardashian’. It comes with miniature thigh-high boots, a micro-mini skirt or cut-off shorts and a boob tube.
Where’s the harm, you may ask, if it makes a five-year-old’s face light up on Christmas Day?
Well, just take a look at the 13-year-olds who’ve grown up in the Bratz era. Paula Joye did: she came across them en masse at a pop concert – and they were all dressed identically in tiny cut-off denim shorts and florescent crop tops.
True, teenagers have always copied one another – it’s perfectly normal to want to dress in a similar way to your friends. But until recently, there used to be far more diversity and room for self-expression.
Granted, we can’t blame this sexualised dress code for girls on Bratz alone. TV, social networking sites, online porn and advertisements all play their part in dictating to our daughters how they should look, think and act.
It’s little wonder that today’s girls are far more anxious than they were a generation ago about looking right and fitting in.
Every aspect of a girl’s appearance now presents an opportunity to fail, with the result being how they look has become the primary concern of children who should never give it a second though
The corporate world must shoulder a lot of the responsibility for this. In the past ten years, it’s realised that girls, and especially pre-teen girls, are a soft target. There are, after all, enormous profits to be made from exploiting their anxieties about everything from skin, weight and clothes to friendship. In fact, today’s advertising – on billboards and TV, in music videos and magazines – actively creates anxieties.
Why? Because in order to sell products to a girl, whether she’s four or 14, you first have to make her insecure – about her looks, friends, clothes, weight, skin and hair.
This amounts to nothing less than a war on girlhood. And believe me, it’s succeeding.
Every aspect of a girl’s appearance now presents an opportunity to fail. The result: how they look has become the primary concern of children who should never give it a second thought. So they’re buying – or nagging their parents to buy – things that young girls never needed or thought of in earlier generations: make-up, skin and hair products, throw-away fashion and footwear that piles up in cupboards.
Mothers complain that it’s almost impossible to buy girls’ clothing for pre-teens or teens that isn’t revealing or slutty. They find it hard to understand why it takes an hour of anxious preparation before their little darlings will even appear in public.
How can parents combat this? We can, for a start, try actively to protect our daughters from the kind of exploitative messages for which they’re neither equipped nor ready.
So stop their subscriptions to girls’ magazines, for instance, which generally do more harm than good. They’re bursting at the seams with ads for sexy clothes and make-up, which are aimed squarely at children.
Then there’s the rest of the content: which boys are hot. How to be hot. Hotness competitions.
Everywhere a young girl looks, there’s someone ready to judge her on her appearance. Some social networking sites invite her to ask not just a few friends if they think she looks OK in a photo, but the whole world.
Last year, girls as young as 11 began posting clips of themselves on YouTube with one simple question: ‘Am I ugly or pretty?’ There are now hundreds of ‘Ugly/Pretty’ videos in this 21st-century re-make of ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’.
One posting by a 15-year-old girl called Kendal attracted four million views and 107,000 anonymous responses, many of them abusive.
These included: ‘Y do you live, and kids in Africa die?’ and ‘You need a hug around your neck with a rope.’
Kendal left a sad message on the site. ‘A lot of people tell me I’m ugly. I think I’m ugly and fat,’ she wrote.
Vulnerable teens and tweens may pretend to shrug off these torrents of anonymous abuse, but the fact is that their fragile sense of self can be smashed instantly, leading in some cases to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Meanwhile, if a girl’s ego isn’t being mauled on the internet, the television programmes she watches every day are insidiously doing it for her.
Each year, as TV companies battle for ratings, there are more and more shows featuring ‘hot’ and ravishingly good-looking young women.
Also at odds with real life are the so-called reality shows, which so many girls watch religiously.
These often feature immature and good-looking young adults having contrived flirtations and experiencing rejection, bullying and exclusion.
Kids watch all this, mesmerised, and conclude that the world must be like this – a heartless place where no one cares. And if you’re not pretty or sexy enough, they learn, then you won’t be ‘chosen’.
For girls, TV isn’t just entertainment. They use it for an additional purpose: to find out what’s normal or cool behaviour. In this way, they absorb thousands of bewildering, distorted, artificial and just plain wrong messages about the world.
Researchers have found that TV’s six key messages to girls are:
1. Your looks are the most important thing about you.
2. Your physical characteristics (shape, weight, skin, hair, teeth, colour, smell) are NEVER, EVER good enough.
3. Sex is primarily a currency that you exchange, for love and attention or for power.
4. It’s normal to have sex with people you don’t even know, or especially like.
5. The world is a scary, lonely, dangerous and competitive place. Better get going – you might lose the race.
6. The answer to all life’s problems is to buy something.
No single show is particularly to blame; it’s the relentless flood of this type of programming that’s progressively damaging our daughters.
Yet few parents are supporting girlhood in the way we once did. Instead of banning TVs from a child’s bedroom or rationing her viewing, for instance, we all too often allow it to become a third parent.
So what can we do? We can start by being more available. Nothing is more crucial than spending time with our daughters, discussing what they see and hear – as well as their hopes and concerns.
We also need to make sure they have role models and mentors, such as aunties or older friends. Involve them in demanding activities that will absorb them. Teach them that they look fine just as they are. Eat meals together and talk.
The forces pitched against our daughters are here to stay. But with enough love and motivation, we can still restore what should be every girl’s birthright: a happy childhood.