Beauty Redefined Blog

Sexy Ponies and Tarted-Up Trolls? Teaching Toddlers Sexual Objectification

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At Beauty Redefined, we’re working to help everyone recognize and reject harmful ideals about bodies – from normalized pornography in escapable media messages like Victoria’s Secret to skewed health ideals, Photoshopping, etc. — but one very vulnerable group needs to be specifically addressed. To share her work regarding very young girls, we have a fantastic guest post from our friend and colleague, Jennifer Shewmaker, psychology professor at Abilene Christian University.

Jennifer is deeply concerned about the way sexualized media messages are impacting children, and we are too. Her goal: to provide families with resources to become voices of transformation in their worlds. Her insight tells us media targeting even those ages 3 to 5 emphasizes a dangerously thin and sexual ideal to a degree never before seen:

In a study published in 2010, Dr. Jennifer Harriger, a colleague at Pepperdine University, looked at how much girls aged 3-5 had internalized the thin ideal (the idea that beauty in females = thinness) and how they attributed stereotypes to others because of their weight (fat=lazy, stupid, has no friends while thin=nice, sweet, has friends). Yes, you read that right, 3-5 year olds! You may be thinking, “Oh come on, kids that young don’t think about things like that.” But, according to Dr. Harriger’s research, there is a very strong research base out there that tells us that children as young as 3 years of age are already beginning to buy into the idea that for females, thinness is equal to goodness.

So what did she find? The little girls that were studied showed evidence of having already begun to internalize the thin ideal and to stereotype others based solely on their weight. What was interesting about this study is that they had girls choose from several different game pieces (like those in Candy Land), which were identical except for their weight. The kids chose pieces that represented themselves and a best friend. Up until now, research studies have shown that kids don’t tend to distinguish that much between thin and average weights. However, in this study, the girls more often chose thin game pieces over the average sized ones. Dr. Harriger thinks this may be due to the fact that in recent years, the thin ideal has been presented to very young children more strongly through products and entertainment.

Click on this photo to see other fascinating before and after photos from the photographer who captured Barbie’s changes over the years!

For example, consider this photo, comparing a Barbie doll from the 1990s to one manufactured today. As you can see, the proportions of the doll, while always ridiculous, have changed even more to emphasize the thin mid-section and curvaceous breast and behind.  There have been many recent make-overs of several well-loved children’s characters, such as that of Strawberry Shortcake, to give them shapes and appearances more in line with the thin ideal. This change in the characterization of positive characters is likely connected to the change in young children’s opinion of thin-vs-average weight.

One of the saddest and most startling findings in this study had to do with the things that the little girls said about the different game pieces. For example, they said about the fatter piece “I hate her because she has a fat stomach” or “I don’t want to be her, she’s fat and ugly.” What’s worrying is that we also see girls as young as ages 5 and 6 talking about dieting and wanting to be thinner. It’s time to stop and think about the messages our young children are getting about body shape and value. It’s time for all of us to stand together and show our children that being healthy and good isn’t about being “thin,” but about so much more than that. Instead of focusing on thinness, let’s focus on strength, both of body and character.

One of our 4 billboard images!

One way Beauty Redefined is working to spread reminders that girls are capable of much more than being looked at is by promoting such messages on U.S. roadsides in a groundbreaking body-positive billboard campaign. Now, those uplifting messages and images are available for anyone on sticky notes and note cards that can be posted anywhere or handed to anyone who could use a reminder that there’s more to be than eye candy.

 

On top of all that, add to thinness the sexualized ideals so prevalent in our world today!

One of Shewmaker’s latest posts onToys All Tarted Upgives us the harsh reality about what our kids are buying into: In a story on the Today Show website, they show several examples of toys that are crazily sexualized, with even horses wearing high heels, make-up, and coy looks. What’s up with that? Consider that even toys that were very popular have now been “made over” into sexier version. Sexy trolls? Yep, the old Troll dolls that you may have played with as a child have received a make-over that makes them more attractive, and really not Trolls anymore.

Rainbow Bright and her friends have been made over from cute little kids into short-skirted teens while the Disney fairies are more scantily clad and, frankly, seem a little seductive. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the new and improved fairies above.

Why are our kids toys being tarted up? What is the point of making a sexy horse or baby, as seen in Baby Bratz? We’re told that it’s because kids like it, but is that true? When my six-year-old saw a Baby Bratz doll at a store, she said, “Those are weird babies. Why do they look like that?” My older daughter laughed out loud when I showed her the picture of the Trots sexy horse above. The truth is, kids don’t like these toys any better than they would more appropriate toy. They just like what’s available and promoted heavily through marketing that’s targeted directly at them.

Come on, parents and other caring adults, don’t buy these goofy toys for your kids. There are other good toys out there that don’t make everything that’s female, from a baby to a horse, wear make-up, high heels, and scanty clothing. We can vote for or against these toys with our wallets. If they don’t sell, they’ll go away.

A few more of Don’t Conform Transform’s Tips:

TALK OPENLY: Sometimes when we don’t like something, we just hope that our kids won’t notice it.   Truth is, that’s probably not realistic. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, it’s a lot more effective to be proactive. So, when you notice your child engaging with media or a product that endorses one of the ideals, point it out and talk with them about it. For example, if they’re playing with a Barbie doll or watching a Barbie movie, you might say, “What do you think of how Barbie looks? Is that how real people look?” My oldest daughter pointed this out to me herself when she was younger, saying “Mommy, I’ve never seen anyone with a waist that small.” When those moments happen, seize them, and begin an ongoing conversation with your child about realistic body shapes.

BUILD COMMUNITY: I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to provide your child and yourself with a community that will support healthy living. Talk with other parents and find those who will provide a healthy message. If you see your child becoming a member of a group that is actively pursuing the Thin or Muscular Ideal in an unhealthy way, step in. It isn’t easy to separate our children from unhealthy peers, but sometimes it is necessary for their well-being. Provide them with other connections through interest groups, do fun things as a family, and so forth in order to give them other ways to connect with more positive groups. The Thin and Muscular Ideals are unhealthy. It’s important for all of us to actively combat them and to provide the children in our lives with positive, healthy, and realistic responses.

Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her inspirational work here and at Don’t Conform Transform!

And for more strategies to fight back against these dangerous ideals, check out our tried-and-tested Strategies for Girls and Women and Strategies for Boys and Men. We also offer beautiful sticky notes and note cards with our positive billboard messages you can slap on magazine covers, toy boxes, mirrors etc., here! Lindsay was in NYC and decided to show “Statue of Liberty” Barbie with her hand on her hip, carrying a purse, and wearing a tube top, that there is more to be than eye candy :) Check out our Facebook page to continue this ongoing discussion!

Harriger, J.A., Calogero, R.M., Witherington, D.C., & Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin-ideal in preschool-age girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9868-1

  1. Jennifer Shewmaker
    Jennifer Shewmaker03-11-2011

    Thanks for sharing my message! It’s so important for all of us to realize that sexualization is now being aimed at children. Keep up the good work!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined03-11-2011

      Jennifer! I was just now emailing you and my computer died! Thanks for being our first guest post :) Your work is sooo pivotal and we appreciate you allowing us to share it with our readers! Now readers, check out the rest her fabulous posts!!

  2. Sonora
    Sonora03-11-2011

    The picture of the barbies is amazing. I didn’t even realize there had been a change that significant. This is definitely an issue. Like I said in my post on this subject, I think it is up to parents to teach our children to love themselves for who they are and what they look like. To teach them right and wrong. It is a big job in a world where there is so much to teach them the opposite lesson.

  3. Chani
    Chani03-11-2011

    Thanks for the great post! The happiest children I have seen are those that play with cardboard boxes. Hopefully those won’t become “sexy-fied” in the future. :) The best thing about the articles on this site is y’all provide PRACTICAL tips for change. It is one thing to discuss these subjects with other adults, but quite another to actually talk to your kids and help them understand the issue. I also appreciate the Strategies for Boys and Men – all too often they are ignored in this battle, but they are affected just the same!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined03-11-2011

      Sexy cardboard boxes?? Please no! But I wouldn’t put it past some of these companies. Thanks for your comment! While it’s important to spread awareness of all the harmful messages being spread about bodies, we really feel like that has to be balanced out with action-oriented ideas for fighting them. We don’t want to spark helpless anxiety – just healthy change!

  4. LivLuna
    LivLuna03-15-2011

    wow i cannot believe how the Barbies have changed. It was bad enough when i was a girl in 80s and 90s… thanks for this. love this site! Please come over to LivLuna – would love u guys to post.

  5. Sarah Wilson
    Sarah Wilson04-19-2011

    Years ago, I bought my daughter a Feral Cheryl doll. You can only get these second hand now, but I highly recommend them. Made in Australia out of latex, Cheryl has a natural woman’s body, dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings and just a few clothes. The idea is that you make your own, and my daughter and I did. But, most shockingly, she shares an attribute with the adult woman that she portrays: pubic hair. The mother of one of my daughter’s schoolfriends was marketing director for Barbie in the UK. When I told her about Cheryl, she said, “That’s not natural!” To which the obvious reply was, “And Barbie is?” Cheryl is an extreme response to Barbie, and I’m pleased I tried it. Sadly, my daughter has, in her teens, succumbed to the same self-hating obsession with starving herself that a lot of her friends seem to have. Peer pressure, fuelled by all the stuff I couldn’t keep out: insidious.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy
    Headless Unicorn Guy09-09-2011

    As a Brony, I have to point out that the “My Little Pony” illustrated at the top is NOT a My Little Pony. It is a My Little Pony knockoff called a “STRUTZ” from a few years ago (which got nicknamed “Skankz”). Kind of like a Pony version of the “PETZ” associated with the Bratz (which resulted in some of the Skankiest toy animals every made).

    I have seen MLP fanart of ponies from the current series (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) encountering Strutz/Skankz. Lets just say the actual ponies have the same opinion of them you and I do. The one I remember is Rarity (the fashion-designer pony; owns her own business in town) looking at two visiting Strutz in absolute horror.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined09-19-2011

      Wow, that is fantastic insight into this long-standing piece of the toy industry! Thank you for making that point. I’m especially loving the fashion designer pony’s reaction. Amazing!

    • PinkiePie
      PinkiePie12-08-2011

      Thank you for making that point. Although some of the Hasbro toys still cling to the ideas that girls only want to be pretty and dress up (the talking dolls do the show no justice), the show itself in G4 has shown increasingly positive lessons for young girls.

  7. Sige
    Sige10-20-2011

    Great article. I found the title misleading.

    “There are lots of different ways to be a girl. ”
    http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/12/24/my-little-non-homophobic-non-racist-non-smart-shaming-pony-a-rebuttal/

    “My Little Pony gives children of all sexes–and adults too–a broad range of meanings to draw from on what it means to be a girl, what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be friends. ”
    http://globalcomment.com/2011/welcome-to-the-herd-a-feminist-watches-my-little-pony-friendship-is-magic/

  8. skooma
    skooma11-22-2011

    I’d actually wager money the main reason for the Barbie change was to use less plastic. There are no conspiracies. The world is actually boring and mundane.

  9. Matt
    Matt12-05-2011

    that is one grotesque pony…

  10. Ashley
    Ashley12-06-2011

    I agree that being sexy and looking hot shouldn’t be aimed at kids or even teens, in my opinion. I have also had an issue with the Bratz dolls. They wear an insane amount of makeup!

  11. kaylin
    kaylin12-08-2011

    I think this is absolute crap (excuse me). I would truly like to speak to the makers of toys and the people who are in charge of companies such as this. Do they not see that they are adding to the problem of our already warped, superficial, materialistic, addiction-filled, society? These are innocent children who no longer have a chance to just be kids. They are bombarded with these messages from society and perhaps, even their parents who may be trapped in believing the lies that society breads.

    You hear things such as, “embrace yourself, be who you are, we are all beautiful in our own unique way, etc.” Yet, those messages are no longer enforced. It seems like they are only mentioned when someone is beginning to battle the unworthy, “I am not good enough” thoughts. Instead, we promote makeup early, toys that display unhealthy messages of thinness, perfection, and what “happy” looks like.

    People talk about change, yet they are unwilling to do anything about it and continue to add to the problem. Those who take part in spreading unhealthy messages need to truly rethink what they are doing and think about their own children and how it could impact them.

    Looks fade and when you have not embraced what truly matters, what will you do then? Life is more than being “perfect,” trying to attain some unrealistic ideal, and trying to be someone we are not.

    It needs to stop here.

  12. Cori
    Cori12-21-2011

    Thanks for your article. I enjoyed reading it and agree. I didn’t notice these types of things until I had my daughter 3 years ago. I have seen the animals in heels, barbies, etc. Barbies I was never a fan of, but they are so obvious in their sexual undertone. I have always been careful since she’s born, it’s like you see more when you become a mom. I cringe at the crotchet see-through tops, the bikinis on kids, the sexualized toys. I’ve never seen the trolls before and didn’t know there was such a drastic change in the Barbie. I kinda think it was to save money and be more realistic (her old shape in the picture looks kind of strange with the way her ribs are), but the undertone has always been there in the Barbies.

    I agree with Kaylin and the companies make me sick, but they aren’t going to change because it makes them money. I wish children were cherished more than they are. There are a lot of parents (not most) that want their children to be “pretty” and it’s sad, they should be innocent kids and be protected from that “conform to our kind of beauty” crap.

    I make a conscious effort to think before I buy. I don’t like tinkerbell and the fairies because I have always thought the dresses are too short and kind of risque. My daughter is only 3 so I buy for her age. I don’t think it’s cute to put make up on her or bikinis. It is funny to see the changes I have seen in myself from when I was fighting with my dad about my skirts to understanding why and probably will be the same way with my daughter. Kind of went on a rant, but clothes irritate me as much as the toys do :)

  13. LK
    LK12-26-2011

    Sad that this article illegally uses a copyrighted image. The Barbie comparison photo was stolen from a photographer and doll collector and can be seen in the original (with copyright notice) here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nuwandalice/2590617877/in/photostream (you’ll notice it’s part of a larger set of doll body comparison photos). I saw the image linked to this site on Pinterest and immediately recognized it. While I am fully behind the idea of supporting positive body image and love that there are academics studying and furthering this idea, I would think that 2 women who are doctoral candidates would fully understand the ethics copyright and citation.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined12-26-2011

      Sorry about that! Obviously if we’d have known where the original came from, we’d attribute! This was cross-posted from this our guest author’s website, with permission, and we would never have purposely been unethical. Thanks for getting us in contact with the photographer via Twitter. http://t.co/Nxrt0435

  14. Whoever likes to make points.
    Whoever likes to make points.01-07-2012

    I find that half of your argument is of course, very valid. I understand “Be what makes you… You!” not try to be rawly perfect. But on the other farfetched hand… Seems you forgot to think about the idea of profit, reason, and just all around APEARENCE.

    See… I don’t necessarily think that children 3-5 care about pretty things blah blah… Maybe some do, but he’ll they are 3-5… Letem have fun or act wierd er whatever floats their boat… Won’t Kill em will it? It’s not ethical to think badly about skinny dolls brainwashing little kids… xD you just sound ridiculous to the majority who DOESN’T think that.

    Second, profit… There are like… Dozens upon dozens of factors WHY things look like they do… Do your think making something like the Old Barbie costs less than the skinnier less heavy on nowadays? The quality changes with the look, it is all balanced, trust me on that… Skinny sex oriented dolls aren’t the direct WHATEVER… again, your argument is not validated because thousands of 3-5 yr olds didn’t go and sophisticatedly say oh I’m a whore now because of his barbie… Just because ratio says it is true doesn’t account fir the possibly thousands of OTHER factors appointed with the result that they do t TELL you about…

    Appearance, now this is just damn obvious, mkay? Do u really think a girl is gonna slam into the store, and grab the obese, squeeze-me I fart barbie off the shelf BEFORE the other more slim figure thing? >.> best example is sad but true… Again the argument is futile… Like… I’m not saying you’re alone, but there is a shitload of people who would happily go “Shut up.” why bother?

    And the scientist who is dedicated to proving kids shows are sexual traps fruit to instigate hot child into beig a thin, happy, peppy little whore is just sad dear… It doesn’t get much worse than that(yes it does xD) Tis pretty sad though.

    I mean… I’m not trying to troll but… I AM stating the opposite point. Ya dig?

  15. Rachel Stone (@eatwithjoy)
    Rachel Stone (@eatwithjoy)05-01-2012

    You might enjoy the series of posts I’ve been doing on the evolution of various cultural artifacts–candy land, gi joes, my little ponies, and today’s, strawberry shortcake: http://eatwithjoy.org/2012/05/01/the-evolution-of-strawberry-shortcake/
    They all show the pervasiveness of the thin, sexy, ideal, or, as I call it, the Disney-princessification of EVERYTHING!

  16. Tiffany
    Tiffany06-04-2012

    Barbies had to be changed when they were sued for “being too unrealistic!” they had to widen the waist and reduce the breast size and flatten the feet. Bash them all you want but I’d rather my daughter want to be like the new barbie then the one I grew up with who had I size 00 waist and F boobs!

  17. Charlotte
    Charlotte01-31-2013

    Oh surprise surprise, a toy article that only references Barbie for her waist size. I’m sorry but Barbie is not the real enemy here, yes the doll is skinny but no more skinny than say a Disney Princess doll (which I notice don’t get mentioned). There is much more to Barbie than her waist size, the changing of which is more than likely down to increased material costs than anything else.

    When I become a parent I’d much rather my hypothetical daughter plays with a Barbie than any other kind of doll. Why? Because Barbie is actively encouraging girls to aim big. Currently on my desk I have a Computer Engineer and a Paleontologist Barbie, which are part of the “I Can Be…” range. A range which focuses on getting girls to aim for different careers and currently includes a teacher, a nurse, a vet, a doctor, fashion designer (an area dominated by men), architect, presidential candidate and many more including traditional and non traditional jobs for girls.

    And as for the movies well those portray a girl going out and making her own happy ending. In Barbie Fairytopia the body image issue is actually touched upon as Barbie plays Elina, a fairy who was born without wings and is actively bullied for it.

    In my opinion Disney dolls are worse, not only are most of the characters they are based little more than 16 years old, they also have extremely sexual bodies. What do Disney Princess dolls/movies encourage girls to do? Sit around and wait until you get rescued by the Handsome Prince.

    Sorry for the rant, but I’m getting more than a little fed up of discussions of toys that only mention the size of Barbie while completely overlooking the good points of the doll. And then failing to mention that many other dolls feature just as disproportionate bodies and do little to encourage girls to do more than wear makeup and skimpy clothes

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