Girl Talk: Lad mags only part of the problem

Glossy Talk: Lad mags only a part of the problem re. the sexualisation of young girls. Also: Can smart young girls make a difference?

Like so many girls raised in the 80s, it was Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret – borrowed numerous times from the library and read beneath bed covers – that introduced me to the concept of boobs, periods, bras and Playboy.

When Margaret moves to New Jersey, she befriends Nancy Wheeler who, on their first encounter, tells Margaret, "In a few years I'm going to look like one of those girls in Playboy." Nancy is in the habit of practising kissing, applying lipstick and reveals that "all boys of fourteen are... only interested in two things – pictures of naked girls and dirty books!".

Nancy educates Margaret in what to wear ("wear loafers but no socks"), and the now-famous way to increase one's bust size:

"If you ever want to get out of those baby bras you have to exercise," she told us.
"What kind of exercise?" Gretchen asked.
"Like this," Nancy said. She made fists, bent her arms at the elbow and moved them back and forth sticking her chest way out. She said, "I must – I must – I must increase my bust... We copied her movements and chanted with her. "We must – we must – we must increase our bust!"

At one afternoon meeting of the 'Pre-Teen Sensations', the group headed by Nancy, Margaret is persuaded to find her father's Playboy magazine: "I mean, if it was so wrong, my father shouldn't get it at all, right?", reasons Margaret. The girl in the middle of the magazine is eighteen and has "huge" breasts: "She looks out of proportion!" observes Margaret before the Pre-Teen Sensations finish up with 50 rounds of bust exercises (in stark contrast to what the Baby-Sitter's Club girls were doing with their time!).

After Margaret has an encounter with Philip Leroy during a game of Two Minutes in the Closet, the sixth-grade girls watch a film on menstruation called What Every Girl Should Know "brought to you courtesy of the Private Lady Company". Margaret's not buying in: "The booklet recommended that we use Private Lady sanitary supplies. It was like one big commercial. I made a mental note never to buy Private Lady things when and if I ever needed them."

Who would have thought that insecure Margaret, with her desperation to get her period and bigger boobs, would have been so savvy and cynical about advertising messages... and yet so detached about what she saw in Playboy ("objectification" was clearly not part of her 12-year-old vocabulary)? The book was first published in 1978 – I wonder if a 32-year-old Margaret would deem that Playboy encounter as a turning point in the construction of her self-image?

This week's Aussie media buzz around the campaign designed to get adult magazines and soft porn material out of the eyesight of children, backed by an esteemed group of signatories, argues that the publications are contributing to the sexualisation of children. The group sees the lad mags and porn titles as part of a broader cultural problem in which society is all too relaxed about the exposure of children to messages and images deemed suitable only for adults.

"The lads' mags are part of the whole problem, contributing to the wallpapering of the public domain with hypersexualised images," says author and women's rights advocate Melinda Tankard Reist. "I do believe they contribute to the sexualisation of children."

In response, Australia's biggest magazine publisher ACP, which is responsible for Ralph, FHM, Zoo, The Picture and People, has acknowledged stricter enforcement measures might need to be implemented, though sees no need for a ban. PBL Media's Scott Briggs, who oversees regulatory affairs for ACP, has also denied the use of younger looking models and pointed to the proliferation of porn on the internet, while the "religious right" has come under attack from Australian Penthouse.

It's a contentious issue that's really snowballing in the media sphere right now, as the Hey Dad child sex abuse revelations and Lara Bingle photo scandal linger in the back of our collective memories. Atrocities against women are prolific in the Aussie public sphere. How did we get here? Or did we never really progress past those oppressive, shag-in-the-wagon scenes depicted in films like Puberty Blues?

From where I'm sitting, the lad mags, whose influence is undeniably dwindling (as discussed by Nik Howe at mUmbrella today), are only a part of the problem. Video clips, advertising, radio ads for erectile dysfunction, fashion's obsession with youth, marketing to tween girls and boys, Suri Cruise in $500 shoes, Lady Gaga on her telephone, former High-5 members on the cover of Ralph, 13-year-old girls being violent and foul-mouthed in films like Kick-Ass, and the omnipresence of the big scary internet... it's a minefield of sexualised messages out there for parents raising children.

All the research would suggest that premature sexualisation leads to complications in later life. Tankard Reist's most recent book, Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, presents 15 compelling essays to awaken our consciousness, challenge our thinking and take action in this regard. She has also set up Collective Shout, an agitator group designed to expose advertisers, marketers and media that objectify women and sexualise children to sell products and services.

There’s no doubting that parents and family are the primary influencers in a young girl’s life, but they are competing with a monolithic machine intent on corrupting childhood. How can we change things? This book is a start, particularly Julie Gale’s empowering chapter, ‘One woman’s activism: refusing to be silent’, in which she records the progress she’s been able to make though Kids Free 2B Kids. In another chapter, Tania Andrusiak, author of Adproofing your kids: Raising critical thinkers in a media-saturated world (Finch Publishing, 2009), writes:

"Getting real is going to take courage. It's going to take a collaborative effort to reject a mainstream view that values only one size, one shape, one demure pout... Courage is the spunky eleven-year-old girl who told me how advertisers wanted girls like her to feel inadequate without the brands they sold in girls' magazines – and who hated the way they made her feel as if buying these brands would make her loved, rather than lonely, in the school playground...".

Perhaps the power is in the hands of the Margarets of the world, who should be encouraged to speak up when they think something's just not right – whether in the presence of a body bully like Nancy or the local newsagent who places FHM right next to her Pony Magazine.

Further reading homework! See also:
- Put soft porn out of view: experts
- Call for soft porn curbs rejected
- Girl Talk: Has toddler fashion inspiration gone too far?
- Girl Power in the satchel (Living Dolls by Natasha Walters)
- Get porn out of the corner store (Melinda Tankard Reist)
- Me vs raunch culture. Or not. (Mia Freedman)
- Lost youth: turning young girls into sex symbols (The Guardian)
- Tiny Tots, High Heels
- The Kids Are Taking Over (Playlist)

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Anonymous said...

This is powerful. Thanks for posting.

Diane Lovell said...

Thanks for this post. I found it via Facebook from Melinda Tankard Reist's page. :)