Six-Year-Olds Care About Lipstick, And Other Tragedies

The woman seemed a little thrilled when her young son asked for a Barbie, telling her husband it was healthy gender-identity experimentation. But the Barbie languished on the shelf. Why? "It's for when a girl comes over," he said matter-of-factly.

The speaker was pointing out how rigid the lines still are when it comes to children, gender, and toys. At a lunch yesterday for Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Front Lines Of The New Girlie-Girl Culture, a forthcoming book by Peggy Orenstein, the book's topic was inspiring all sorts of confessions, mostly of the parental variety.

Orenstein's book isn't out for a few months — more on that when we've read our galley! — but she spoke persuasively about how intensified marketing and segmentation was, more than ever, targeting young and younger girls for mascara and bikinis. She said it was a sort of bastardization of 90s "girl power," where the freedom to like girl things had become a prescription to do so, that something had given way between "get to" and "have to." And the message itself, of self-determination for girls, had been distorted, she said, to self-obsession—to stickers on a messenger bag kit her daughter got as a gift, reading, "It's all about me."

When Orenstein cited a statistic that 40 percent of six-year-olds wear lip gloss or lipstick regularly, the room shifted and murmured in discomfort.

Is there harm in all this? Orenstein, who doubtless gets into more detail in the book, cites the harmful effects of early sexualization in an APA study, and added, "When girls are pushed [into sexuality] prematurely... they learn that sexiness is a performance, and don't learn to connect it with their own feelings," Orenstein said, adding that this was the crucial distinction between being "anti-sex" and "anti-sexualization."

The cultural obsession with sex as a public performance, she said, was what was behind psychologist Deborah Tolman's account of how she asked little teenage girls about when they felt sexy, and they answered with when or how they looked sexy.

Anne Kreamer, the former creative director of Nickelodeon (who wrote a book about a later version of the beauty myth — embracing gray hair despite expectations that women "defy" aging) spoke up too. "I am part of this," she said, noting that women had increasing power in the entertainment and consumer products industry. She was constantly told that the onslaught of "pink and glitter" was about "maximizing shareholder value," and that everyone was "forced into making creative compromises."

But someone has to be buying.

Orenstein noted that parents have to be driving the Toddlers And Tiaras-ification of children who are young enough to accept no as an answer.

The line, though, is difficult to negotiate, particularly given that children aren't raised in a vacuum. "The trap we fall into is that you're trying to offer your daughter a wider notion of femininity by saying no," Orenstein said. "We need to find things to say yes to." The other risk, she said, was implying to girls that "girl things" were somehow inferior.

Or making them want those girl things even more, as I learned when I canvassed our staffers on childhood toys with feminist moms:

"Wanted it all - Barbie kitchen and dream house and every gown. Got none of it. Had to play with gender-neutral toys and wear overalls," says Sadie. "When they finally caved and got me a wooden kitchen set, it really wasn't the same thing!" And Jenna bemoans her one doll at age 9. "You can't just play with one doll," she says, so she would go over to a friend's house to play with her Barbies. "When I got older, like 11-12 or so, my mother would give me old issues of Ms. to read on rainy days, probably in an attempt to undo the damage."

A board game called Perfect Wedding and Disney princesses hadn't prevented me from becoming a feminist and a participating member of society, even if they had complicated things. But I also had parents who never dreamed of reducing my role to princesses and weddings. (I congratulated these parents today for purchasing so many gender-neutral toys for my two-year-old niece's visit — Play-doh and drums and soccer balls. "I hope you didn't see the Cinderella baseball bat," my mom replied. At least it's a bat?)

Orenstein has a chapter on pink in the book, wondering whether it staves off sexualization or primes girls for it. In any case, exiting the event, guests came head-on with this display of HarperCollins' other offerings:

Six-Year-Olds Care About Lipstick, And Other Tragedies

Baby steps.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Front Lines Of The New Girlie-Girl Culture
Earlier: Think Pink: The Sexist Toys Of Our Youth