The current issue Discovery Girls magazine has a feature on how to pick the right bathing suit, because apparently girls (8 – 12, if we’re going by DG’s target demographic) should be worrying about that. New York Magazine put the question this way: “Why Would a Magazine Tell 9-Year-Old Girls What Bathing Suit Is Best for Their Body Type?”
I’ll tell you why: because that’s what they thought girls would want to read. Because that’s what they think women want to read. Because the idea that girls and women are preoccupied by appearances is so deeply culturally ingrained that it’s hard to break the patterns that force the statement ‘let’s do a story about swimwear!’ to become ‘let’s do a story about what swimwear is best for your body type’, regardless of whether the audience is nine or nineteen or ninety, if that audience happens to be female. Because we expect girls to be worrying about this as early as nine, or earlier. Because the idea that girls want to be pretty, should be pretty, need to be pretty – even if they are so many other things – is an idea that still runs through most girl-facing marketing and messaging, even much of the stuff that claims to be ‘pro-girl.’
Because this is what we should expect from a culture that, when it says to girls and women love how you look!, it speaks out of both sides of its mouth. Love how you look, even if the only models we present to you fall within certain parameters of size, shape and color! Love how you look, but also buy our beauty products! Love how you look, and don’t you ever forget to love how you look, because how you look matters in a way that it will never matter for a boy!
Because this is what we should expect from a culture that doesn’t blink when a male presidential candidate makes fun of how women look. Because this is what we should expect from a culture that doesn’t blink when a female presidential candidate is mocked for her pantsuits. Because this is what we should expect from a culture that, in some corners, still isn’t quite sure that a woman should even be president. (Wait, just not this woman! Maybe some other woman! Some other, nicer, softer, gentler woman!)
Because this is what we should expect from a culture that takes seriously Kim Kardashian’s insistence that her perfectly lit, perfectly Photoshopped, perfect body selfies are feminist declarations of body pride. With the right light / right editing / right filters / right waist-training / right swimwear, you’ll feel great about how you look, too! And you should feel great about how you look and share how great you look! It matters! Girl power! Feminism!
Because this is what happens when every role model needs to be ready for their profile in Vogue magazine. Because this is what happens when the role models are mostly pop stars and actresses and maybe the occasional athlete or dancer and they all look amazing in swimwear.
Because when was the last time you saw an adolescent girl character in any medium who looked like a real girl, like a real, gloriously awkward growing girl? (Bonus points if you can point to one who doesn’t fall in line with dominant gender norms. Peppermint Patty was a long time ago, you guys.)
Because it’s a very short distance between Barbie and Bratz and Princesses – yes, even the new, enlightened versions, for whom beauty and style still come fucking first, and everything else second – and a nine year old girl worrying about how she looks. Because women ‘worrying about how they look’ is a whole industrial complex, and it starts early and it runs deep and it takes its shape in fashion dolls and beauty mags and airbrushed celebrities and bright young Instagram influencers making duckfaces at the whole world, and even if there are no evil geniuses behind the screen manipulating that specific message (although I’m not saying there’s not) it’s still there, it still rings loud and clear and we all fucking hear it.
Our daughters hear it. They totally hear it and we’re fooling ourselves if we think they don’t.
And so if they happen to see a story in a magazine about the best bathing suit for their body, they’re probably not going ask themselves the question that New York Magazine asked. They already know the answer. We already told them.
Now we’ve just got to figure out how to untell it.