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Culture, Media, Fashion, Peer Pressure and Our Girls

March 18, 2021

Culture, Media, Fashion, Peer Pressure and Our Girls

We can't escape it. We live in a world where we are bombarded each day by society pushing its agenda through advertising and social media. Our children see it too, if not even more than us. The recent conversation around consent amongst teens is not new news. It's been happening for a long time.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and a huge campaigner and advocate for women and girls. She co-founded Collective Shout and shares her thoughts on the effects of advertising and the fashion industry on our girls as well as the conversations we need to be having with our daughters. It also was a reminder to me as to why I started The Teen Age as an alternative for girls who are looking for something that's comfortable and practical.

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Tell us a bit about yourself and your family.
 
I am a writer, speaker, campaigner and co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.  My background is in journalism. I have written/co-authored six books. My work has focussed on sexualisation, objectification, trafficking, the harms of p*rnography and p*rn culture, violence against women, and the interlinkages between all these. Pre COVID-19, I was mainly travelling and speaking to thousands of people, including many students, on these issues.
 
I am married with four young adult children who are all, thankfully, supportive of my work.
 
What gave you the idea to start Collective Shout?
 
The idea for Collective Shout came about as a result of my third book, Getting Real, Challenging the sexualisation of girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). One of the contributors, a young woman who had struggled with body image issues, wrote to me after the book’s publication and said: “Your book is a collective shout against the pornification of culture”. The words ‘collective shout’ jumped out at me. I thought – I need to find a way of using those words, I think I’ll start a movement! Many people were contacting me and asking where is the movement against what I had documented in this book, so the timing seemed right. I contacted some friends I thought would be interested, and others just came out of the woodwork wanting to be involved. We have had some amazing achievements in that time, in mobilising thousands to rise up and take collective action, resulting in victories against major corporations and other companies in Australia and globally. Supporters tell us ‘You make us brave’. They’ll take action and speak out in a way they may not have before, knowing they have our backing. As well, the harms of sexualising children, and of exposure to p*rn, are recognised now in a way they weren’t 10 years ago. You can learn more about us here.
  
 
What do you see is happening when you look at advertising and trends in the fashion industry for girls in their tween and early teen years?
 
The advertising industry needs to be held to account for exploiting the bodies of women and girls for years. Everywhere they look, girls see wall to wall images of women posed and styled for maximum sexual appeal. They learn that they are to be valued only for their bodies and attractiveness, while their gifts, talents and abilities fade into the background. They are pressured to conform to a very narrow stereotype of beauty and attractiveness.
 
I remember trying to buy bathers for my youngest, who was tall and big boned (and strong!). After visiting five clothing stores and finding nothing suitable, she asked, with tears in her eyes: “Why do these shops hate girls like me so much?”
In a documentary about the power of media and advertising on women’s sense of self, Jean Kilbourne said: “Advertising is a very powerful educational force. Advertising’s influence is quick, cumulative, and for the most part, it’s subconscious. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, a sense of normalcy. To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be.”
 
A global meta-analysis of all the literature on the subject found objectified portrayals of women contribute to a “diminished view of women’s competence, morality and humanity”. We have been calling for an overhaul of the ad standards self-regulatory system in Australia since our inception. We are hoping to see some changes soon – in the meantime we will keep up the pressure.
It is very difficult to challenge current trends which emphasise specific
parts of the body, and draw attention to sexual characteristics. For
girls who don’t conform to idealised stereotypes of how women’s
bodies should look, it is a nightmare.
 
Regarding the fashion industry, a constant lament from parents is how hard it is to find functional, appropriate, clothing for their girls – clothing which doesn’t sexualise and adultify them. I remember trying to buy bathers for my youngest, who was tall and big boned (and strong!). After visiting five clothing stores and finding nothing suitable, she asked, with tears in her eyes: “Why do these shops hate girls like me so much?” I speak to many parents who don’t even bother trying to find clothes for their girls in the bigger name retailers. They go on-line or to op shops/vintage stores for alternatives. Sadly, there is a trend toward girls playing less team sport because of body consciousness and tight fitting uniforms. It is very difficult to challenge current trends which emphasise specific parts of the body, and draw attention to sexual characteristics. For girls who don’t conform to idealised stereotypes of how women’s bodies should look, it is a nightmare.
 
 
Why is ‘adultifying’ children bad? Isn’t it just making them look like mini adults?
 
The global research is clear on the harms of adultifying children and not allowing them to develop at their own pace.  
 
As Dr Emma Rush, author of the Australia Institute report ‘Corporate Paedophilia; writes: 
 
“It goes well beyond playing dress-ups. There is substantial evidence that sexualisation harms children: it promotes body image concerns, eating disorders, and gender stereotyping. Premature sexualisation also erases the line between who is and is not sexually mature, and as such, may increase the risk of child sexual abuse by undermining the important social norm that children are sexually unavailable”. 
 
Children should look like children, not ‘mini adults’. We claim to condemn child abuse, however live in a culture which eroticises children. I wrote about this for the Sydney Morning Herald.
 
Should we be stopping our children from wearing what’s in mainstream fashion?
 
Before anything else, the most important thing you and your child have and need to maintain is a connection; a relationship with your child in which they feel understood. Connection breeds trust and communication. If and when your child feels pressured to adopt the fashion and identity of sexualised pop-culture, you are then in a position to talk about what that means, what drives their desire to conform. You can then negotiate if the child is in a difficult position where they are feeling they have no choice between resisting peer pressure and social exclusion or ‘social suicide’ as some refer to it. By negotiating with your child, you maintain the connection, understanding and communication – they know you have their best interests at heart.
 
My approach is to offer guidance without taking a ‘blanket ban’ approach (especially where it is not my money being spent). I prefer to expose cultural influences and help them understand the pressures to look and dress certain ways and to reject cultural dictates. I have encouraged them to seek out alternative sources for clothing (op shops, vintage, fair trade/fair fashion) and to dress in a way that is functional, encourages freedom of movement, and outdoor adventuring.   
 
Should we be having the conversation with our daughters about what’s happening? Can you share with us some ideas on how we can do this?
 
Our message to girls is to act personally and politically.
 
Fostering a positive body image is only one part of the solution. It is much more important to encourage girls to see themselves as more than their bodies, to understand they have more to offer than their bodies and they are not defined by their physical appearance.
 
I'd love to see a ‘love your mind’ campaign, encouraging girls to value their mind and their soul rather than merely accepting their body. I think it helps to appreciate function over appearance, to be grateful for what your body can do rather than how it looks. Your body allows you to run, dance, lift weights, create life, carry and birth a baby. Surely all this is more impressive than how our bodies look.
 
Use ads and other messaging as ‘teachable moments’. Unpack them with your young person. As mothers we can model positive attitudes to our bodies, not tolerating ‘fat talk’ or body judgement in the home, for example. Scrap ‘diets’ and throw away the scales – they tell us little about our health status and often just make us feel bad.
 
Encourage healthy activities  that help girls develop broader interests and develop resiliency to harmful cultural messages.
 
Help them understand they are not seeing true images, but advertising which is heavily doctored and photo-shopped. Help them see that there are entire industries preying upon body angst.  Assist them in criticallydissecting popular platforms such as Instagram and how ‘influencers’ entrench and normalise limited representations of women – usually for profit.
 
Girls need to see they can make a difference in the world and contribute to cultural and social change. We have many young women in Collective Shout’s ranks! They are passionate about making a difference and being all they can be, resisting limits society tries to place on them.
~
Melinda Tankard Reist is an author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. You can read more about Melinda and her work and also support her in her campaigns at Collective Shout. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter for ongoing information and resources.
Melinda has books to educate parents on how to discuss some of these topics with their children. You can find them here.
Other resources:

 

BodyMatters Australasia (founded by two of Melinda's colleagues) run a clinic for those suffering with eating disorders and have been involved in some great advocacy and campaigns against fat-shaming, stigma and the diet industry.

 



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