SHELBURNE, VT.; AND WATERVILLE, MAINE — Just when you thought you got your daughter out of pink ruffles so she could climb a few trees and ride a bike, along came another pink.
It's a pink that's being sold to little girls as a way to make their transition to teen life almost imperceptible. Mattell hopes to dress your daughter in hot pink and black to match her Barbie dolls, Hasbro was going to sell her Pussycat dolls in pink ruffly crop tops, Club Libby Lu offers pink Tween Idol and princess makeovers, and GapKids sells her natural sweetness with ever so unnatural premakeup glitter, fragrances, and spa kits.
In just a hop, skip, and a jump, marketers have moved your daughter out of girly innocence into a teen life, all before she hits the tender age of 8. But what is she really being sold? A packaged version of what it means to be a girl that promises her she'll feel "special" if she conforms to being a cute, "hott" little shopper.
At a time when daughters could be developing skills, talents, and interests that will serve them well their whole life, they are being enticed into a dream of specialness through pop stardom and sexual objectivity. While fantasies of fame and fortune are typical and harmless at this age, the investment into a lifestyle that focuses on getting attention and power through looking good and attracting boys can be all too harmful.
In order to "stand out," marketers proclaim, girls should conform to their mold. The teen magazines that middle school girls read, for example, constantly ask them to put themselves into a box. Are you this kind of girl or that kind of girl? Are you an Avril or a Jessica? Are you a girly girl or a tomboy? Are you a "glam" girl or a nerd?
Playing on girls' worst fears – that they will be labeled by someone else – magazines encourage girls to label themselves first. But for some reason there's never a category for a girl who plays both tuba and soccer, who doesn't care that much about clothes but who works at the grocery store, babysits, and does well in school. This kind of girl is complex – not an easy sell for marketers.
We are aware that early adolescence is a time in life when girls begin to openly challenge their parents as well as tune them out, believing that older girls have much more to teach them. But "girl power" continues to be presented to them without any real references to women of power, such as business executives, politicians, and professional athletes (save for a few). Instead, power means being a teenager and doing the same things that older girls are doing, such as shopping and dating.
Yet family members can respect our daughters' search for an identity via "style" while helping each one to be a true individual and not, as she would put it, "a poser" in a world of superteen, supermodel, super-"hott" older girls. Research tells us that middle school girls need and want good rela-tionships with their moms and dads. That makes it all the more important for parents to get or stay savvy about the world their daughters are living in. Then they can be players in their world, not nerdy tag-a-longs.
This is true for teenagers, too. Older teens are already very capable of reading cultural nuances, uncovering hypocrisy, detecting deception, and discovering manipulations. Why not do it with them? It makes an older teen feel smart and savvy when she can prove that she can't be fooled. But not all teenagers want their parents to be the ones to point out marketing manipulations. Teens, above all, want to believe that every choice they make comes from their unique, original, independent selves. So the best way to work with teen daughters is to be with them in their world, share observations, point outward to the culture and not directly at her fishnet stockings, her music, and her slang.
What has become clear to us is that what a girl will buy into when she is younger will affect her as a teen. But turning off the world can't be the answer; it's almost impossible to keep girls away from marketers and the media. Still, parents can help them to read this world with more critical eyes. In the end, our daughters might not feel so "special" in the way that marketers have packaged girlhood, but if they have the means to reflect on this glam world and their parents' company when doing so, they'll be uniquely themselves – and proud of it.
• Sharon Lamb is a professor of psychology at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vt. Lyn Mikel Brown is a professor of education at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. This essay is adapted from a new book by both authors, "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes" (St. Martin's Press, LLC).