Until women have freedom and equal access to resources and opportunities for self-sufficiency, the currency of our worth will remain how we look. Mothers and daughters alike, says Soraya Chemaly.
On Tuesday, after a twitterstorm of protest by anti-sexism activists, iTunes and GooglePlay removed a game from their app stores. It was called “Plastic Surgery and Plastic Doctor and Plastic Hospital for Barbie” and this is how it was described:
“This unfortunate girl has so much extra weight that no diet can help her. In our clinic she can go through a surgery called liposuction that will make her slim and beautiful. We’ll need to make small cuts on problem areas and suck out the extra fat. Will you operate her (sic), doctor?”
As stupid and destructive as this app may seem, studies have shown that parents of girls as young as 3 monitor their diets so that they don’t get “fat.” In a quest for root causes, you can’t get much earlier than that. This app, which was rated OK for ages 9+, is just one more way we teach girls to pathologize healthy female bodies and take up less and less space in the world.
Buzzfeed did a super thorough job capturing the game’s stages of fat identification, sculpting, incisions, injections, vacuuming, stitching, and post-operative “perfection.” While the app includes copious amounts of cartoon bandaging (of a smiling and happy female figure), it leaves out post-surgery unpleasantness like pain, bleeding, swelling, and possible risks.
The description noted that it was alright for kids because of “Infrequent/Mild/Realistic Violence.” The iTunes app review committee didn’t seem to think that a game in which girls learn to carve female bodies up with knives and suck fat out of them with vacuums was pervasively violent.
Here’s an alternative description:
“This app so reeks of sexism and violence against girls and women that no amount of fun animation can hide it. In our game, a girl as young as 9 can learn that mutilating her body to meet harmful societal expectations is a good idea—and fun! By propagating unrealistic and narrow ideals of beauty and normalizing plastic surgery, our app perpetuates inequality by making sure that younger and younger girls learn to hate their bodies. We’ll give her fun tools she can use every day to make a hundred small cuts in her self-esteem and erode any semblance of healthy body image she might have!”
Providing little girls with games teaching them to mutilate female bodies is market development in a very, very big business. Interest in what Alex Kuczynski appropriately called the Beauty Junkie industry starts early. A wide array of buffing, waxing, tweezing, grooming, and skin treatments are now available to younger and younger girls.
Trend statistics on teen’s and cosmetic surgery are ambiguous and conflicting, but in terms of plastic surgery alone, in the past 15 years, there has been a 10-fold increase in cosmetic procedures. In 2012, more than 10 million procedures were performed, unless you count those performed by assistants, in which case that number is more than 12 million. Surgical procedures increased by 80%.
Pop quiz: What percentage of plastic surgery is performed on girls and women?
The correct answer is D. The most popular surgery? Breast augmentation.
And you know what one of the fastest cosmetic procedures for girls and women all over the globe is? Especially teenage girls? A labiapasty called The Barbie. Requires exactly NO imagination to figure out what that is. The family-friendly term is Designer Vagina, which is a fun way to say, as the Atlantic put it, that girls’ and women’s “labia minora are completely amputated,” so that they look like porn actresses. In other words, so that boys and men will find them sexually attractive. There are some risks, such as scarring, infections, bleeding. Girls as young as 13 are doing this. There’s even a movie about this trend. It’s called The Perfect Vagina. And who is paying for it? Parents.
At least girls are getting help understanding what’s going on. For example, there is a book, written a few years ago by plastic surgeon Michael Salzhauer, that explains it all! Called My Beautiful Mommy, it tells the story of a girl’s learning to help her mom achieve her quest for perfection when she changes the nose she shares with her daughter and has it reshaped. The doctor’s office doles out cookies and lollipops as he explains that he’s making Mom a prettier, happier version of herself.
I admit that the first Amazon review, by Jeff Hollande, made my day: “I recommend it along with the book, ‘Beautifully Bony: A Child’s Guide To Embracing Mommy’s Anorexia,’ and of course the classic, ‘Doping Daddy: A Pop-Up Book About Your Father’s Ballooning Biceps, and 101 Totally Cool Tips On How to Avoid ‘Roid Rage.'”
It’s easy for me and this reviewer to mock this scenario. Cultural ideas about bodies and gender make the toxic combination of self-loathing, objectification, and harm a heavy load that girls carry into adulthood.
But until women have freedom and equal access to resources and opportunities for self-sufficiency, the currency of our worth will remain how we look. Mothers and daughters alike.
Which brings me to the point of this entire essay. I have three daughters. It has been a constant struggle to buck societal pressure to conform to beauty standards. Long ago, after a clueless and disastrous foray into a Libby Lu, I decided that I would not spend, as they grew older, precious time on shopping, manicures, pedicures, makeovers, and hair treatments. We don’t own a scale. Our conversations about bodies revolve around health and athleticism. The goal with girls is to keep beauty in perspective and give it a healthy context. This has been exceedingly difficult.
First, there is a fine line between genuine celebration of femininity and engaging in its fetishized production. It’s hard to balance the fun a gaggle of girls and women can have getting ready for a party with the market mandate that girls have to straighten or curl their hair, shave or wax their bodies, pad or not pad their bras, and think about those things constantly. It’s entirely possible to be interested in fashion, style, and beauty in a way that is not self-destructive, but it’s very hard to explain that in words to children who are saturated in media that we, as parents, have very little control over.
Second, it feels sometimes that the entire world is working against you. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, favorite media personalities—it’s difficult to say no when friends and relatives around you are actively and regularly promoting activities focused on appearance.
Third, it’s frustrating because fighting this culture means giving up things that could and should be fun.
It’s everywhere. In movies, books, games and, of course, clothing. For example, right this very second, my daughter, a very tall 14-year-old, is trying to find a bathing suit online. She long ago outgrew sites for her age range. We can’t stop laughing at the descriptions:
Beach Sexy Devil String, Very Sexy Twist Bandeau, Beach Sexy Rouched Hipkini Bottom, Beach Sexy Triangle Top, Exotic Sexy, Sexy Fringe, Sexy Bandage Bikini, Sexy Crochet…
She can be sexy. Or sexy. Or sexy.
Melissa Atkins Wardy just published the best book I’ve read about the tangible, everyday steps parents can take to combat the pressure for girls to conform, Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She discusses everything from social norms to birthday parties, education and health care. Her examples range from conversations with family members to how to talk to doctors and dentists who think nothing of suggesting that girls “look their best” while telling boys what to eat to “be strong.” The book includes a great list of resources and a bibliography. Mainly, however, its real value is in explaining how important it is to take small things seriously and advocate on behalf of children.
While countless people were involved in conceiving, developing, and pitching the Barbie Plastic Surgery app to iTunes and GooglePlay, and countless more seemed to think it was a good idea, the problem isn’t just the people who buy these games. It’s in how massively profitable it is to teach girls to hate themselves.
The bottom line? “’Games’ such as these essentially teach girls that if they want to be accepted in the world and feel comfortable in their own skin, they need to ‘fix’ themselves first,” explains Sharon Haywood, co-editor of Adios Barbie and one of the most vocal to protest the app’s sale this week. “That’s not a message they need to internalize.”
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.