We Haven't Come a Long Way, Baby


In 2009, former Hi-5 children’s entertainer Kellie Crawford posed for a lingerie photo shoot for men’s magazine Ralph. The Ralph cover for April features Kellie in tiny knickers and black bra, and shouts "It’s Hi-5 Hottie Kellie!" with the subtitle "Busting out some bedtime stories". It includes another smaller picture of Kellie in her Hi5 costume. In the accompanying interview, Kellie explained that as a children’s star, she "just forgot I was a woman". She did the photo shoot to "find the woman in me".

I responded in media interviews by asking why it was that the Wiggles were not expected to prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks and having their photos taken for a magazine shoot, yet women were expected to take off most of their clothes to prove their womanhood? Opponents of my position, both men and women, filled my inbox with intellectually challenging arguments. These included:

That I was sad, old and dog-ugly
That I had saggy breasts and a droopy arse
That I needed liposuction
That I was a bitter ugly woman
That my face would break a 60-inch plasma television

And, my personal favourite, that I was "as ugly as a hat full of arses" (obviously not a hat full of Kellie’s arses, because hers was magnificent, according to her fans).

However, one little girl in Victoria who seemed not to care about whether I was bitter or needed cosmetic surgery, wrote me an email earlier this year which I now quote with her permission:

"My name is Delaney and I am 10 years old. On Today Tonight I saw a story about Kellie from Hi-5. Of course, you know that she has done a photo shoot for a men’s magazine. I think it is very silly how she feels she has to do it. It sets a horrible example for younger kids like me. When I was little I used to love watching Hi-5 and it makes me feel dissappointed [sic]that she has done something like that."

Delaney, and girls like her, receive messages from every level of the media and popular culture that the baring of the female body is what makes you a "real woman". Very few young girls have Delaney’s courage to distance themselves from this message. Ideal womanhood is now all about sexual allure; the ability to attract the male gaze has become what is important in life. As Pamela Paul writes in Pornified, "being publicly sexual has become the only acceptable way for girls to demonstrate maturity".

The pressure to conform to an idealised body type in a sex-saturated culture that values girls who are thin, hot, sexy and "bad" is taking a terrible toll. Despite the many opportunities at school, university and in the workplace available to them, girls today are struggling. Courtney E Martin describes it as "the frightening new normalcy of hating your body". Self-hatred is so prevalent, it’s like a rite of passage for teenage girls.

In the past it was often adult women who understood that their bodies were being pulled apart bit by bit and analysed for imperfections and flaws. Women understood the imperative to be sexy, a message shored up by advertising propaganda. Now this understanding has come to younger girls, who learn to see that they too are always at risk of failing.

Martin has noted that many girls say they would rather be hit by a truck than be fat. I know of a fit and healthy five-year-old who won’t go swimming because, she says, people would laugh at her and say she’s too fat. Eight year-old girls are admitted to hospital with eating disorders. Schoolgirls develop ranking systems on the basis of "hotness", resulting in guaranteed misery for the girl with the lowest ranking.

Girls internalise the body critiquing messages of shows like Extreme Makeover and America’s Next Top Model and its Australian version. The program Ten Years Younger in Ten Days puts couples in glass boxes at Sydney’s Circular Quay so that 100 passers-by can tell us what they think of their looks. "She looks like she just gave up", commented one viewer before the transformation begins, and the women have their faces pumped full of botox and fillers until they look like chipmunks with cheeks so plump they can hardly talk, their feet stuffed into heels so high they can barely walk.

English girl Sasha Bennington absorbed today’s messages about what constitutes female beauty early:

"Sasha … has a spray tan once a week and a new set of acrylic nails once a month. Her hair is bleached white-blonde and regularly boosted with a set of extensions. She plucks her eyebrows and carefully applies makeup every morning. Her favourite outfit is a white satin boob-tube dress and Stetson hat.

"But Sasha isn’t a Vegas showgirl — she goes to primary school and only turned 11 last week.

"While most children her age have been desperately waiting for the arrival of the new Harry Potter, little Sasha has been hanging on for her heroine Jordan’s latest book. She says, ‘I’m obsessed with her.’"

Sasha’s bedroom, the UK Sun article tells us, is "a pink shrine to Playboy, with a Playboy door curtain, satin duvet set, Playboy pillows and pyjamas". For Sasha, the thought of not being pretty is just too awful to contemplate: "My mum would just call me ugly. Everyone would call me ugly. I wouldn’t like that at all."

Playboy make-up, including "Tie me to the bedpost blush" and "Hef’s favorite lip gloss" (in colours Centerfold Red, Sex Kitten and Playmate Pink) is marketed to girls, along with Playboy doona covers and pencil cases. Girls are wearing the brand of the global sex industry directed by a sleazy 80-year-old man in silk pyjamas and they think it’s about cute rabbits. When Hugh Hefner was asked by the Washington Post about a growing trend among young girls to wear Playboy-logo clothing and accessories, he replied, "I don’t care if a baby holds up a Playboy bunny rattle".

The sexualisation of girls has seen a rise in beauty rituals and a desire for cosmetic surgery at ever younger ages. Disordered eating is on the rise. A 2006 National Youth Cultures of Eating Study found that close to 20 per cent of adolescent Australian girls use fasting for two or more days to lose weight. Another 13 per cent use vomiting. Others rely on slimming pills, chewing but not swallowing food, smoking, and laxative abuse, as found in this study. According to AAP, one in four 12-year-old girls in Australia would like to have cosmetic surgery. A Brisbane Sunday Mail investigation in 2008 reported a 20 per cent increase in inquiries from teenage girls for plastic surgery.

A Queensland surgeon was quoted in the Sunday Mail report as saying that between 5-10 per cent of young women want to look like the former Big Brother contestant Krystal Forscutt. Cosmetic surgery practitioners are cashing in on the body angst of girls and women, with growing numbers of teenage girls having breast implants.

The makers of a UK Channel 4 documentary The Sex Education Show v Pornography, which screened in March 2009, showed photographs of 10 pairs of breasts to a group of boys from Sheringham High School in Norfolk. According to a Guardian article:

"All say the most attractive are the ones that have been surgically enhanced. Alarmingly, a posse of their female classmates says the same thing. Both sexes are unimpressed with normal breasts, which — unlike porn stars’ silicone-boosted chests — are often not symmetrical and sit down, not up."

Almost half the girls at Sheringham High School were unhappy with their breasts. Even small children get the message that the real thing just isn’t good enough. My Beautiful Mommy, a 2008 book by a Florida plastic surgeon, Michael Salzhauer, is written to explain mummy’s new makeover. The book’s front cover shows mummy in body hugging pants and snug top, enhancing her pert new breasts. Surrounding her is pink stardust, as though she’s been touched by a fairy. What girl doesn’t find sparkly stardust appealing? Maybe the magic cosmetic surgeon will visit them too one day? A more fitting title would be, "If mommy’s not good enough maybe I’m not either?"

We see in these examples a phenomenon identified by M. Gigi Durham as the Lolita Effect, that is, "the distorted and delusional set of myths about girls’ sexuality that circulates widely in our culture and throughout the world". Girls are encouraged "to flirt with a decidedly grown-up eroticism and sexuality".

One mother described the impact of these myths on her 13-year-old daughter, in a poignant letter to The Age:

"I am the mother of a 13-year-old girl. She is not overly developed, she does not wear makeup, she is aware of her burgeoning sexuality, but a little daunted by it and curious of it. Whenever I go out with her — be it to a shopping centre, a walk down the road or picking her up from school — she is gawked at, wolf-whistled and stared at by men usually aged in their 20s and 30s. It doesn’t matter that she is standing with her mother.
They do not hesitate for a second. They wave and gesticulate while she’s sitting in the car next to me. Her girlfriends also suffer this indignity.

"I believe this is the result of the sexualisation of children that some men think it’s fine to lust after them — and not just fine, but acceptable. It doesn’t matter if they see revulsion, fear or confusion because they’re looking at these girls’ faces. The girls are totally objectified … I don’t think it even enters these men’s heads that it is not only offensive, but frightening to attract naked lust when you are only 13."

This is an edited extract from Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist (Spinifex Press: 2009).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.