Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Letting girls be girls, Barbie dolls included

I'm a dad of two girls. One aged nine the other fast approaching seven.

Even at their tender ages you can hear the occasional worry about how they look.

Am I too thin? Too small? I wish my hair was longer, shorter, darker, lighter.

But how much of this anxiety is driven by a comment at school, and how much is a result of the pressure of growing up in a social media fuelled environment?

After all, my girls are part of the first ever generation to have never known a world without YouTube and Instagram.

Two stories caught my eye this morning.

The first is a rather troubling account from an Australian teenager who has quit social media having created huge followings by posting, as it turns out, fake illustrations of her perfect life.

Essena O'Neill is quoted by the BBC saying:

"I've also spent hours watching perfect girls online, wishing I was them. When I became 'one of them', I still wasn't happy, content or at peace with myself."

Perhaps not surprisingly the glossy exterior covered up a real girl who was experiencing all the usual self doubt and need for reassurance any child needs when growing up.

Hers was self-inflicted to some extent having become addicted to the immediate response and recognition that 250,000 followers gives you.

Contrast that however with another young successful female blogger called Zoe, who openly talks about her anxiety and posts videos without make-up.

Recently Davina McColl made a point of recognising why Zoella (her online persona) was a role model she was proud of.

Quoted in the Standard she explained why.

"Zoella talks about anxiety and she talks about things she’s worried about. She’s such a cute looking girl but she shows herself with no makeup on, and with pimples, and I love her for that because these little girls, my kids, really look up to her and think she’s a great role model.”

The other story that stood out this morning was a new campaign by Mattel for their Barbie doll.

Will Burns, writing in Forbes, outlines how Barbie Dolls have had a brand image problem the last couple decades and an acute sales problem the last few years.

He goes on to say: "The brand image problem relates to the unrealistic body image that a typical Barbie Doll presents to children..."

But makes the important distinction, that 'when we see a child playing with a Barbie Doll it’s not a buxom babe projecting negative influence onto the child. It’s imagination at work, a blank slate, a world of possibilities shaped like a doll.'

In other words it is us as adults projecting our view of what our kids see, not in fact what they are imagining.

The Mattel ad that he then links to is a brilliant piece of storytelling. Combining neatly the real life reactions of adults to kids roleplaying imaginary careers. It's well worth a look.

Will adds: 'the film squarely positions the Barbie Doll as a conduit for the development of a child’s self image. A professor, a veterinarian, a business woman. Not a bimbo, as many adults have been conditioned to believe, but a business woman.

'Because make no mistake. This film is targeted to parents, not kids.'

These two contrasting stories highlight for me the importance of letting kids be kids. Whilst always emphasising positive role models and real life.

I overheard my eldest saying a boy at school said girls can't do x, y, z with a football. Cue her immediately proving him wrong. That's my girl.

Never let anyone tell you what boys or girls can or cannot do. You can do anything you want.

Words I must live by myself in that case, including letting her play with her sister and their ever growing collection of dolls or watch endless Zoella and Alfie videos.

Declared interest: In my day job for Asda I work closely with the talent management company Gleam that represents Zoella and a number of other vloggers.

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