Submitted by Nicole Landreneau
(Photo by USAG-Humphreys, Megan Clancy, Flickr Creative Commons)
Stop the presses…I went shopping! What? you say. A woman who doesn’t like to shop? Does that even exist? Perhaps I should be the subject of some psychological study as I seem to be the recipient of that rare ‘non-shopus-addictus‘ gene. I have to say, while I do enjoy the hunt for the obscenely good bargain, I seldom willingly subject myself to a mall. The whole mall scene has never been attractive to me, even when it was the ‘in’ thing to do growing up. And now that I’m adult with less time to waste and minimal money to spend, the mall is the last place I go.
Alas, I had to bite the bullet and head out when I recently found myself in need of some new duds. I actually got lucky and came home with more than a headache – plus a few stellar bargains.
But, this piece is less about my shopping excursion and more about what I saw on my Journey To The Mall.
For more years than I can count, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend in the items marketed to children. It’s gotten progressively harder over the last 30 years to find age appropriate gifts for my expanding flock of nieces and nephews. Walking through nearly any store – especially near the holidays – your senses are assailed by all that ‘must be had’ to make any child happy. If they are to be found at all, innocent toys like jacks and balls, blocks and fun games are buried out of sight behind everything that is branded to some television show or cartoon or celebrity. Most of these sources have much in common: the characters are sarcastic, disrespectful, and behave in manners that would have made an adult blush not that many years ago. In the stores, I see children modeling the behavior they see on TV, and parents doing little to correct it, often acting like it’s ‘cute’. One time I was appalled to see a four year old dancing on the hood of a Barbie car using moves she’d seen in the latest Britney Spears video. Her family thought it was funny. Funny? What is funny about a toddler acting like a stripper? Hopefully, one day in the future they won’t find themselves surprised by her career choice.
Since I mentioned Barbie…I’ve avoided purchasing dolls for any little girl for a long time now. They are missing a sense of innocence that a baby should have, and many of them are downright trashy in the way they are dressed or what they are programmed to say. You could not pay me to buy a Barbie or similar toy. Even when I was a kid myself, I avoided Barbie because I thought she was ‘evil’. Ah, the wisdom of a six year old! My own tiny sense of self worth made me realize that she represented something unrealistic, so why should I waste my playtime with something so totally unattainable? I played with trucks instead. What kind of person did I become because of that? I’m not a fashion aficionado. I don’t need to have the latest of anything. I don’t need more ‘accessories’. I’m relatively comfortable in the healthy size 10-ish body I have been blessed with. Based on what I see in the mall, however, that makes me a rarity.
Walking past the kids’ clothing stores I’m astounded by the racks of apparel in tiny sizes and skimpy material designed to give youngsters ‘sex appeal’. And people are snapping it up or completely oblivious. It seems you can buy cute clothes for toddlers, but your choices rapidly move from adorable to hooker-wear (I’ve heard the term ‘prosti-tot’ used) or gang-wear once they pass the ‘toddler’ sizes. A 7-year-old girl should not be baring her middle or asking mom for a push up bra so she can wear a shirt that shows cleavage. That 8-year-old boy should not be asking if his new low-riders make him look ‘bad’. Something is very wrong here. Why are these ideas acceptable? Because that’s what is marketed to kids and their parents on TV and in magazines. All the latest trash magazines in the grocery are right at eye level – as soon as a child can read, they are looking at headlines about who has done what with whom and multiple ways to do it, losing weight so you can be impossibly thin, and how to make yourself more appealing to the opposite sex. Add to that the commercials on TV and the characters in the shows kids watch. The combined effect results in kids acting way beyond their years without understanding what they are doing, losing any sense of innocence at a very young age, and perpetuates image and behavior problems as they continue to grow up. They are pushed to be something other than who they are, and never learn that being a whole person does not mean turning yourself into a pretzel to fit someone else’s image of who you should be.
Much of this has been well documented in multiple research studies, as well as written about in a very lengthy, but thoughtful, piece in Deseret News . What happens to our children who are pushed by marketers and media to grow up too fast? And grow up fast into what? Solid citizens with a healthy understanding of what it means to be a real person? Hardly. For starters, there is a rampant explosion in kids with self-image and mental health issues. They think they have to look a certain way, have a certain body type and flaunt their sexuality in order to ‘be somebody’ to their peers. If they aren’t involved with someone, there is something wrong with them and they can be shunned. Eating disorders are rising as girls try to become that size zero that they are told all the guys want. The boys are looking for that ‘perfect-looking girl’ before they even know what a relationship is supposed to be. They are looking to be loved, but are duped into thinking that sleeping around is love. They can’t even love themselves! The message is sent to kids: if you don’t like the way you look, do something about it – dye your hair, get cosmetic surgery while you’re still a teen, bleach your teeth, go on radical diets. We’re creating a society of superficial, over-sexualized people who don’t know what it means to have character and integrity, and who set themselves up to be objects that are used by other people rather than appreciated and loved for who they are.
How do we counter this trend? Be an activist in your own home. For starters, parents need to take a more active role in parenting. Talk with your kids about what they think when you’re watching things on TV together. Use those opportunities to explain why behaviors are questionable and give examples of what would be better. Affirm your child’s self worth: be sure they know they are loved for the unique person they are, not for how they look or what they can achieve. Pay attention to the media your kids are tuned in to and help them to make good choices. Spend more time with them and model the behaviors you want to see them develop as they grow. Point out good role models.
Consumers can make a difference by not purchasing the trashy clothes and the branded toys that don’t represent good values. (Yes, this IS difficult!) We can sign petitions when warranted, write letters, and support those businesses or groups which affirm the whole person rather than an unattainable image. If we don’t say anything, then no one will hear that there are people out here who are fed up with what we’re being fed. In short, we need to stop settling mindlessly for what is available and start demanding better. Our children deserve it, and so do we.
So, the next time you make a trip to mall or your favorite mainstream retailer, make it a point to notice what is being marketed to the younger set and how it has affected their behavior. You will likely be surprised by the blatant sexualization of the products tailored for our youth (and their subsequent behaviors), or it will disturbingly confirm what you already knew. Either way, it’s likely to be an education you didn’t bargain for.