Sitting on my three-year old daughter’s bedroom ﬂoor beneath a carpet of furiously ﬂung leggings, I wait out the storm of her epic temper.
We’re ten minutes into her daily tantrum over what she has to wear for nursery, a hellish new addition to our morning routine that’s been starting our days with a double shot of cortisol for the last two months. I make attempts to talk her down from her fury, but she just pelts me with socks.
As a tension headache takes my temples in its jaws, I begin to run out of steam. “What IS it?” I ask, “What’s wrong with these trousers?” Stopping mid-canary, she wails “I can’t wear them, the big girls will say I look stupid.” The big girls, she tells me, wear dresses.
Her little face is so crestfallen that I end up letting her choose whatever she wants to wear (which is everything, all at once), and so she skips into her rough and tumble outdoor nursery looking like a baby Iris Apfel out for tea at the Savoy.
When we get there I want to round up these big girls and give them a stern TED talk on the importance of self-expression and individuality, but I fear I might be too late. What we have here is a microcosm. The girls at nursery have already absorbed the knowledge – from Disney, from dolls, from the adults around them – that a particular presentation of femininity has value, and they use it to divine popularity in a watered-down approximation of the way in which prettiness and sexuality are later weaponised in high school, on Instagram and across a host of IRL personal and professional settings throughout adulthood.
I knew it was inevitable that my daughter would have to start navigating prescribed female ideals at some point. But I never imagined that it would be in her Sesame Street years.
Now, I’ll admit I have a talent for taking my kids’ passing phases and extrapolating them into life-deﬁning issues that are doomed – DOOMED! – to plague them well into adulthood. But when it comes to young girls, expectations and self-image, it doesn’t feel so much like paranoia as vigilance.
After all, there’s a hell of a lot to worry about when it comes to young girls. Multiple studies have shown that boys and girls display a comparable sense of self-belief at age ﬁve, but that by the time they’re seven, girls have already started to view themselves as less capable, strong or smart than their male peers. Alongside this worrying shrinkage of academic conﬁdence, we also have to contend with girls’ growing dissatisfaction with their physical appearance at an increasingly young age.
In a study recently published by the Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s Trust, it was revealed that one in seven girls are unhappy with their bodies by the time they leave primary school. By 14, this ﬁgure jumps to one in three. Combined with news that eating disorder diagnoses among girls in the eight to 12 age group are on the rise, the picture these ﬁgures paint of young girls’ wellbeing is a disturbing one.
So, what is making our girls so unhappy? In a nutshell: gender stereotypes. Unlimited Potential, a recently published landmark report commissioned by the Fawcett Society, concluded that projecting harmful stereotyped assumptions on to young children is not only at the root of girls’ problems with body image and eating disorders, but also of violence against women and girls, and a big contributor to the gender pay gap status quo.
If children’s clothing is anything to go by, we can assume our culture still expects little girls to conform to a frivolous, princessy and passive model of femininity. In an assessment of 1,000 children’s T-shirts from Marks & Spencer, Next, Sainsburys, Asda and Tesco, data analyst Mitra Abrahams showed that while boys’ clothes were plastered with bullishly conﬁdent slogans like ‘I AM THE FUTURE’ and ‘DON’T MAKE ME ROARRR!’, girls’ tops spoke more softly with tags like ‘Professional Princess’, ‘Be a kind human’ and ‘I whale always love you’.
Whereas nearly 64 per cent of the boys’ tops were printed with images of vehicles, dinosaurs, male characters and zoo animals – with vehicles alone accounting for nearly a quarter – in the girls’ section, vehicles featured on less than one per cent of shirts, ignored in favour of a proliferation of unicorns, rainbows, ﬂowers and hearts p. The message we seem to be sending to our girls is that they should concern themselves with whimsy and leave the real stuff to the boys. A more honest slogan would read ‘Don’t drive, just sit pretty’.
We place no less emphasis on looks among women and girls now than we did in any previous generation. While we might feel like we’ve made progress on that front, to me it seems like we’ve just switched out the old narrow parameters of beauty for new, equally stiﬂing ones – and the occasional Dove advert is not going to convince me otherwise.
I came of age when the size 00 craze was in full swing and Heat magazine would publish endless pap shots of hungry starlets with xylophone rib cages doing beach yoga. I hate to admit it now, but at the time I thought they looked fantastic.
Today, the Kardashian-Jenner hourglass maintains its monopoly over Gen Z. Their problematic body type (by which I mean appropriated, augmented, ﬁltered and monetised) has become ubiquitous, but it is no more attainable than Mischa Barton’s reed-like ﬁgure of ‘04. I dread to think what extreme silhouette my daughter’s generation will be in thrall to, but it feels too optimistic to hope that we’ll have moved past our prescriptive approach to women’s bodies by the time she hits her teens.
To pause on the Kardashian family for a sec, I did, surprisingly, feel bad for Khloe this week as the internet crowed over an unﬁltered bikini shot of her, posted in error, in which she looks perfectly ﬁne, if slightly less Barbie-smooth and Jessica Rabbit-esque than we’re used to. Initially shamed for not being as perfect as her Instagram account would have us believe, the media later doubled down when it emerged Khloe had taken aggressive measures to have the image taken down from all sites.
Yes, she has created and encouraged this rabid appetite for her content, and yes, she has been trading on an idealised version of her body to promote her new swimwear line – but when Khloe published a post on Instagram that detailed the relentless trolling and abuse she’s faced for over a decade about her looks and her parentage, I heard echoes of Meghan Markle’s treatment by the tabloids, and it made me think for the thousandth time how unsettling it is that our society really loves to see a woman miss the mark and go down in ﬂames.
Imagery and accountability
So, I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but from where I’m sitting, there isn’t enough evidence of accountability in the media for us to expect a reckoning of its treatment of women any time soon. And it’s in the best interests of capitalism to perpetuate the shifting insecurities of women for as long as we’re vulnerable to them. So how, in the face of all that, can we protect our girls?
It all comes back to our perceptions of gender – and thankfully, on that front, there is hope. The Fawcett Society’s Unlimited Potential report offers sensible recommendations for both the government and the commercial sector – such as making challenging gender stereotypes integral to good early years practice, and ceasing to market toys as ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ – as well as sharing useful tips for practitioners and families.
Having read how damaging these stereotypes can be for our girls and boys long term, I’m keen to make a start. And while some of the tips cover approaches I already take with my kids – such as making sure they see a diverse range of women in positions of value and authority in the culture they consume – others highlighted pitfalls I hadn’t previously thought of, such as the avoidance of using gendered language when it isn’t strictly necessary, pointing out “those kids are playing video games” rather than “those boys…”. Other pointers deal with problems I’ve been aware of but have sat with uncomfortably rather than tackling head on, like how other people often speak to my children in gendered terms.
Things won’t get better overnight, and a concerted effort by parents, educators, companies and the government is needed for the picture to really change – but given our children’s current and future wellbeing is at stake, it doesn’t seem too much to ask.
I know that at a certain point, whatever we say to our daughter in the home is going to be drowned out by whatever she’s exposed to outside of it, and so for me this work has to begin now. On the curriculum for my kids today? A Lizzo and Bowie Say Fuck the Patriarchy kitchen disco. Once dance at a time…