Girls need role models to help them see beyond looks

On Monday June 6, the UK government’s Department for Education published its “independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood”, titled Letting Children be Children.

Written by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mother’s Union, the Christian charity, the review aims to summarise key findings from previous reports on the subject and to present recommendations.

The report covers well-trodden ground: sexualised clothing for young girls; gender stereotyping in toys and television programmes aimed at children; protection of children from sexual content online and in print; undue pressure on girls to be attractive.

This last point is a serious one: in 2005 a mobile phone survey found that 63 per cent of 15- to 19-year-old girls considered glamour modelling their ideal profession, for example.

One of the difficulties with the report is that it is a summary of parents’ opinions gathered from questionnaires and focus groups, rather than a scientific enquiry into the consequences of consumer culture on children’s development.

An article by academic social psychologists Diane Ruble, Leah Lurye and Kristina Zosuls for a Princeton University website suggests, for example, that girls’ obsession with pink clothes, while intense, usually phases out at about six.

While the Bailey report is apparently about the sexualisation of children, in practice it is all about the sexualisation of girls. Boys’ clothes, toys, pop imagery and television heroes are not overtly sexual – they are more likely to be action-oriented, if not violent.

Letting Children be Children highlights the fact that too many consumer goods aimed at girls are overtly sexual and parents are concerned about this. It doesn’t shed light on the longer-term impact of such stereotyping on both boys and girls or suggest how both genders’ ambitions may be affected by it.

For girls to develop their full potential, they need to see women praised and applauded for more than being sexy. It may say more about the celebrity culture of the western world than the evils of advertising or consumer goods manufacturers that such role models are hard to find.


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