Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes

by Sharon Lamb

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The stereotype-laden message, delivered through clothes, music, books, and TV, is essentially a continuous plea for girls to put their energies into beauty products, shopping, fashion, and boys. This constant marketing, cheapening of relationships, absence of good women role models, and stereotyping and sexualization of girls is something that parents need to first


The stereotype-laden message, delivered through clothes, music, books, and TV, is essentially a continuous plea for girls to put their energies into beauty products, shopping, fashion, and boys. This constant marketing, cheapening of relationships, absence of good women role models, and stereotyping and sexualization of girls is something that parents need to first understand before they can take action.

Lamb and Brown teach parents how to understand these influences, give them guidance on how to talk to their daughters about these negative images, and provide the tools to help girls make positive choices about the way they are in the world.

In the tradition of books like Reviving Ophelia, Odd Girl Out, Queen Bees and Wannabees that examine the world of girls, this book promises to not only spark debate but help parents to help their daughters.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
That girls are overwhelmed by images of princesses, demure femininity and pink, pink, pink is no surprise. What is shocking, as Lamb (The Secret Lives of Girls) and Brown (Meeting at the Crossroads) so astutely demonstrate, is the downright bombardment girls receive, coming from all forms of media. Lamb and Brown, both psychologists, came to harsh conclusions after they surveyed girls; sat through hours of Rugrats and Kim Possible television programming; scoured stores such as Hot Topic and Claire's; watched Hilary Duff movies; listened to Eminem and Beyonc ; visited; and read Caldecott books. The idea of "girl power was snapped up by the media," and "what it sells is an image of being empowered," argue the authors. Girls are offered two choices by the marketers: they are "either for the boys or one of the boys." Even rebellion is being packaged, "the resistance, that edginess and irreverence that once gave girls a pathway out of the magic kingdom." The book is incredibly readable and rises above others in the genre by giving parents concrete tools to help battle stereotypes. Lamb and Brown include lists of books and movies with positive role models and talking points to help your daughter recognize how she is being manipulated. The authors aren't trying to deny anyone princesses or pink; they just want girls to be knowledgeable enough to choose what will truly interest them. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
author of Women and Desire and The Resilient Spiri Polly Young Eisendrath

...a must-read for parents and teachers who want to steer girls away from marketing schemes that distort female power and authority and toward true self-acceptance and authentic empowerment.
From the Publisher

“...a must-read for parents and teachers who want to steer girls away from marketing schemes that distort female power and authority and toward true self-acceptance and authentic empowerment.” —Polly Young Eisendrath, author of Women and Desire and The Resilient Spirit

“Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown have that rare gift of translating cutting-edge research and analysis into strategies and information that every parent (and every girl) can use in daily life.” —Joe Kelly, president of Dads and Daughters (DADs)

“With compassion, insight, and humor [Lamb and Brown] unravel and demystify the messages girls confront throughout their development, and they offer adults useful tools to help girls resist their powerful pull.” —Lynn M. Phillips, Ph.D., Department of Communications, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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Packaging Girlhood

Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers' Schemes

By Sharon Lamb, Lyn Mikel Brown

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0632-6


Pretty in Pink: What Girls Wear

Girl or boy?" is almost always the first question people ask when they hear about the birth of a baby. They don't need to ask, however, when they see a newborn in her carriage on the street — the clothes and accessories provide the answer. Typically, a little girl will be dressed in pink and frills, and a boy in blue with a sporty theme. Lots of parents go to great lengths in this first year to distinguish gender for other people. They tie ribbons around bald heads and plant barrettes in bare wisps of hair; they put tough-looking Nikes or patent leather Mary Janes on little feet that don't yet walk. Clearly gender is a parents' issue long before it's a child's concern.

But there's a grace period — a timeout, if you will — between ages one and three when smart moms puts their children in comfy pants or overalls for the tumbling, crawling, and cruising that they do. Clothes and diapers may still be color coded, but styles match the developmental needs of little ones and provide optimal comfort and movement. Who would want to restrict a little girl from learning how to walk by putting her in slippery, too-tight shoes or in a dress that doesn't protect her knees from falls? But funnily enough, once toddlerhood is behind them, developmental needs seem less important and, alas, clothing for girls becomes "fashion." And that's the beginning of a lifelong lesson.

Who is pushing fashion to your preschooler? Little girls are likely to wear what their parents suggest or choose for them. Six- and seven-year-olds, even those with cool older sisters, are still more influenced by parents than are girls in the preteen or tween years. Knowing this, marketers have been much more interested in selling your young daughter toys and sugary cereal than a specific brand of jeans. But that's changing. It used to be that clothing for five-year-olds was different from clothing for ten- or twelve-year-olds. Not anymore. Many brands now market clothing in sizes 4 to 16, which means your little girl can be very much the big girl when it comes to that halter, camisole, or denim mini-skirt. She can go from diapers to the cute little briefs that have replaced thongs. They make them that small.

Dressing for fashion à la Barbie or Lil' Bratz dolls and dressing for physical play are completely different things. So what does that suggest to your daughter when you dress her in the latest fashions, such as low-rise jeans or belly shirts? It suggests that her play clothes no longer work for school as boys' play clothes do, that play is a circumscribed area of her life and no longer her raison d'être. It says school clothes need to impress, to say something about you. This differentiation between clothes and play clothes may be okay for older adolescents and adults (when school sports teams replace the free play of the younger years and exercise is something you buy clothes for and do at set periods of the day), but it is completely wrong for children.

Following a trend that researchers have observed, your daughter may be spending less time at play than girls of earlier decades. This is very unfortunate and unhealthy. Play is the substance, the foundation of childhood. Girls live and breathe active play for a reason. They need to be physical; they need to run and jump and test their limits. According to philosopher Iris Marion Young, this kind of physical testing is intimately connected to how girls grow up to approach and experience the world. She writes that girls need to feel their bodies as "strong, active subjects moving out to meet the world's risks." Physical challenges prepare them for both social and intellectual challenges to come. So those crop tops and tight low-rise jeans do more than discourage movement. They tell your daughter — at an age when she needs to feel big, try new things, and widen her reach — that how she looks is more important than what she can do and more important than racing to the corner or rolling down the grassy hill as fast as she can. She may look cute in the moment as a mini Barbie or a corseted Cinderella, but the hill she forgoes or the race she doesn't run will impact how she interacts with the world for a long time. It is a great loss to the preteen and the teen. What have they exchanged play for? A world of glamour, playing at dressing up, and doing makeovers?

We show how clothing for little girls, preteens, and teens announces the type of girl she can be and then extends this type into everything about her. Some of this dressing up is fun, but as we will say over and over, our problem is primarily with the lack of choice or, rather, the false idea that girls have lots of choices when these types are closing out other options. Parents can help create these options. Offering your daughter a wide-open view of the world and promising her she can be anything has to begin early and extend over time. One of the first way is to offer her all the colors of the rainbow and give her the clothes needed for full movement in play.

Pretty (Sexy) in Pink: Your Perfect Little Angels

P — perfect

O — off the hook

P — princess

S — stylin'

T — too cool for you

A — angel

R — rockin'

(Written on a bikini underwear set for sizes 4 and up)

Walk into J. C. Penney, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Old Navy, or any similar department or clothing store and try to find a regular T-shirt for your daughter. You remember the kind — no clingy, Lycra-enhanced material; no Bratz or Barbie or Disney faces; no rhinestones; no fashion accessories attached; no slogans or funny sayings that announce the particular tribe she identifies with, such as princesses, cuties, shoppers, cat or monkey lovers; no fake pink sports team logos. Just a basic brightly colored cotton T-shirt that she can wear with jeans. It's next to impossible. Once common, they're now specialty items found in expensive children's clothing stores, in sporting goods stores (although there's lots of pink there, too), and in L. L. Bean catalogs. When we asked for them in J. C. Penney, the helpful saleswoman pointed to a section and told us there might be a few left. Sure enough, tucked between racks of glittery fairies, rhinestone-emblazoned "Born to Shop" slogans, and pink "Angels Varsity Track Champs" shirts, we found one lone red T-shirt stylishly fitted in its own plain way. One left? If this is supply and demand, wouldn't it be the other way around?

The commercialization of girlhood hits hard. Sexy clothing for four-and five-year-olds is all the rage, and if you read T-shirt slogans, you know how girlhood is marketed. Your daughter can choose her identity, but the choices are frightfully limited: Professional Drama Queen, Paradise Princess, or Pretty Princess Beauty Queen. (That covers all the options!) There is also Extra Fancy & Delicious/Quality Guaranteed, Spoiled, Princess Soccer Club, 100% Angel, Hollywood Superstar Film Crew, and Cheer Bunny. These shirts are all in sizes 4 to 16. Isn't that an awfully broad age range? There used to be a distinction between little girl and preteen. No more.

In our review of clothing for younger girls, we were continuously surprised by the ways little girls are enticed to look older. A few stores sell sizes 4 to 6x, but even these had a much older look. Penney's Total Girl brand touted tight, hip-hugging, flair-legged jeans with little purses attached in red, pink, or a pink-and-black leopard pattern. (Purses for four-year-olds?) The little embroidered hearts, flowers, and butterflies on the legs suggested little girl, but the style said sassy teen. How do five-year-olds play in these pants? What do they put in the purses? Probably marbles, candy, or little plastic animals, unless they've been to Toys "R" Us and bought an Imaginarium Purse Play Set, complete with wallet, credit card, and makeup compact.

Most stores fill the racks with clothing geared to older girls but in little girl sizes. In the fall of 2004, Kmart sported biker chic that seemed racy for even preteens, much less the tiny bodies that would fit into size 4: faux black leather jackets with zippers and leather lacing up the sides; low-rise, flair-legged jeans with leather ties and little pewter hearts (a nod to younger girls perhaps), sleeveless jean jacket shirts, and shirts with sexy pink lace over black. Even Kmart's Tinker Bell nightgown had an edge: Pixie Chick.

When we wondered aloud in a store called Fashion Bug what girls from sizes 4 to 16 would have in common, a cheerfully defensive clerk attempted to explain. Walking to a rack of skirts, she told us there was something for everyone: the older girls would probably go for the low-rise denim miniskirt with chains, while the younger girls would prefer the low-rise gray stretchy miniskirts with the pink ruffle. The same goes for the little sweatshirts. "The girls do the distinguishing themselves," the clerk told us. "A twelve-year-old would not wear the guitar-playing monkey. She'd go for the 'My Favorite Subject Is Social Studies' T-shirt." So why make the monkeys in size 16 and the social studies T-shirts in size 4? Her answer sounded like an answer from a slippery marketer: "So everybody's happy." (And we find it interesting that a salesgirl getting paid $7.50 an hour can step right up and defend the multimillion-dollar corporation.)

Sure, there are also sweet little tops with animals on them for the younger girls, but the older styles are all available, too, so of course the younger girls want them. Procter & Gamble set up a sweepstakes with Limited Too clothing stores to advertise their Secret Sparkle Body Spray deodorant to girls as young as seven. They also placed ads in teen and tween magazines. Dave Knox, assistant brand manager at P&G overseeing the body-spray launch, explained the rationale: "If you don't target the consumer in her formative years, you're not going to be relevant through the rest of her life." The problem was that their warning label said, "Keep out of reach of children." Following an investigation by the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), the children's advertising industry's self-regulatory forum, P&G stopped the sweepstakes and pulled the ads. But the point was made, show the girls the brand and style that older girls are wearing, and let them see it's possible to wear it, too. Not only does this make it hard for parents to say no, but it hooks girls really young on products they don't need and begins their dressing for fashion rather than for practicality — what they might, given their own devices, dress for versus how they should dress for good health and comfort. These older clothing styles show up on the girls in TV shows that kids are watching, they are strategically placed in doll sets, and they are choices in popular computer games. Reality and fantasy may be blended for young kids, but parents shouldn't fall for it. In the real world where child pornography on the Internet is a problem, there is something disturbing about little girls in leather, chains, and lace.

But what are the options? In spite of all the little Mia Hamm and Cheryl Swoopes sports fans, if you walk around the mall you will observe that wherever you find a mention of something sporty, it is balanced by some pink, some glitter, or some other indication of a girliness/fashion diva. Most girls' sports pants are not really for sports; they don't have the durable make, the loose fit, the breathable fabric, or the high waist of real sports pants. They're a fashion statement, a "sport princess" or "sport cutie" announcement. As with that cotton T-shirt, you have to go to high-priced specialty sports shops or buy from more expensive catalog stores such as Lands' End to find real sports pants in a range of colors for girls. Or you can go to the boys department because, of course, sports clothing of all kinds hangs in rack upon rack in the boys' section of any store. Even in those pricey catalogs from stores that seem to take active girls seriously, we find page after page of stereotypes. Girls' clothes are "so soft she won't want to give them up on laundry day," and "Quality never looked so cute." Boys' clothes are touted as "the coolest in class," or "Guy blows out knee in a week? Climber will cure the habit!" Whether it's T-shirts, pants, or sleepwear, according to marketers boys live for action and girls live to look cute.

As much as most stores subtly discourage girl athletes, they train girls to be shoppers as soon as they're old enough to voice their preferences. You find T-shirt slogans such as "Love Shoppin' and I'm Never Stoppin'" and "I'd Rather Be Shopping" and an overabundance of accessories available to them, such as those little purses attached to everything from jeans to sweaters to backpacks. "Shopping: the real exercise for girls" — while that's a slogan we've never seen, we think marketers would love it. In this regard, the influence of fashion dolls is everywhere. The wide-eyed, big-headed, sexy "passion for fashion" Bratz dolls or their wannabe look-alikes are on every form of clothing, starting at toddler age. You can fashion-train your little girls with images of purr-fect sleek cats with big doll-like eyes. They adorn sweaters, purses, and shirts, and often are featured holding a shopping bag.

Don't get us wrong: Most girls love this stuff. We know they do. In J. C. Penney we heard two girls about five or six years old begging their mom for "Pretty Princess Beauty Queen" T-shirts. And they know how to beg! They've had training from TV commercial girl models. "Come on, Mom," they plead. "It's on sale. Look, two for one. Pleeeease." But loving it isn't really the point. Girls love double-fudge-frosted brownies, too, but you wouldn't want them eating a steady diet of the stuff. The problem is not the single, silly T but the sheer quantity of products that offer so few options to girls and come with the marketing tentacles that seem to reach out, grab, create, or remake everything into a narrow sexy image. It is a very big problem.

Pink and Girly, Red and Feisty: Are They So Different?

Some girls seem to love everything pink and glittery while other girls want nothing to do with it. Why? There are lots of reasons, including what their parents are drawn to, what their friends like, and what shows and ads they're watching on TV. They may need to be different from an older sister who seems to have claimed a style for herself. But have you noticed that girls seem to choose either pink or anything but pink? This isn't by chance. Marketers are not only offering clothes, they're offering a kind or type of girl. This kind of girl is either really feminine, or she rejects the feminine for more masculine choices.

Feminine for the littlest girls is coded pink. Pink baby dolls line toy shelves, pink clothing dominates girls' departments in stores, pink bedding and room decor grace the pages of catalogs. Pink, usually accessorized with white and pastel colors such as lilac and yellow, symbolizes all that is sugar and spice. It announces sweetness, innocence, and security (in all those pink bedrooms). Wherever there is pink, there are angels, princesses, hearts, and flowers.

Angelina Ballerina is a great example of what pink represents for young girls. Made famous in a series of picture books and now a PBS cartoon and doll sold in American Girl catalogs, Angelina is a little white mouse in a pink tutu adorned with pink roses, pink-ribboned ballet slippers, and a glittery tiara. She is the embodiment of sweet, soft, pretty, and delicate. American Girl sells Angelina with loads of pink clothing (both for the dolls and real girls), accessories, room decor, purses, pajamas, and a sleeping bag. Parents can buy pink Angelina bedding so that little girls can "dream sweet dreams with Angelina!"

The choice for girls who are not into all that pink are the colors associated with boys: blue, red, green, and black. These colors convey action and aggressiveness. So it becomes more than a choice of frills or colors; it is a choice of characteristics, qualities, and labels — those associated with stereotypes of girls (girly, cute, sweet, innocent, soft) and stereotypes of boys (active, sporty, aggressive, strong, bold). Girls understand the difference and how it feels from a very early age.


Excerpted from Packaging Girlhood by Sharon Lamb, Lyn Mikel Brown. Copyright © 2006 Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., author of The Secret Lives of Girls, is professor of Psychology at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. She not only has done research on girls and teens but has listened to their struggles in her private practice.

Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., professor of Education at Colby College in Maine, is co-author, with Carol Gilligan, of Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development. She works with girls at her nonprofit organization, Hardy Girls Healthy Women (

Sharon Lamb is professor of psychology at Saint Michael's College in Vermont and the author of four books, including The Secret Lives of Girls. Her research on girls' development, teenagers and sex, and abuse and victimization is widely cited. As a clinical psychologist, she often works with girls, listening to their struggles and hearing their strengths, in her private practice in Shelburne, Vermont.
Lyn Mikel Brown, professor of education and human development at Colby College in Maine, is the author of three books on girls' development, including Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development (with Carol Gilligan). She creates programs for girls at her nonprofit organization, Hardy Girls Healthy Women.

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