Selling Girls Short


Lyn Mikel Brown examines how commercial and cultural pressures relegate girls to submission and the sidelines

By Ruani S. Freeman

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center%The market, long-divorced from requirements for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, targets girls with a voraciousness that has to be experienced to be believed. Flip the pages of any parenting magazine and you will find girls dressed in finery that locks them out of the games just as completely as if their little American feet were being bound into lotus shapes. Every activity, from ballet to basketball, is reinterpreted to encourage girls to become pod people who accessorize well, mind their sex appeal, and snag boyfriends.

Enter Packaging Girlhood (St. Martin's Press, August 2006), written by Colby's Lyn Mikel Brown (education) and Sharon Lamb, professor of psychology at St. Michael's College in Vermont. Brown and Lamb, both mothers, educators, and authors, pack a powerful punch when it comes to expertise on the subject. A renowned expert on the status of girls in America, Brown's credits include Girlfighting and Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development (written with Carol Gilligan). Among four books by Lamb is The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do"Sex, Aggression and their Guilt.

Using extensive market research that included surveys with more than 600 girls, Brown exposes a culture where girlhood arrives prepackaged. A world that, far from empowering them, is designed ". . . (to) channel girls' desires into predictable types." Bratz dolls are no different from Barbies, Brown points out, they just sell the idea that the girl who buys Bratz is powerful because she is choosing her role model (girls in string bikinis mixing drinks in hot tubs, for example).

After 20 years of studying girls, Brown says she and her coauthor were "fed up with the 'you've come a long way, baby' perspective that is so at odds with reality," and they wanted to show parents how to avoid the pitfalls of a just-say-no approach by "becoming familiar with their daughters' world, learning from her perspective, and parenting from a place of thoughtfulness, not fear."

The adversary is both formidable and omnipresent. Between the Disney princess who waits for her carpet ride and the bootie-jigglers on MTV, there's a lot of selling going on. It was, Brown says, "like dealing with aliens from old science fiction movies: chop one head off and five more pop out."

Packaging Girls is replete with examples of girls being bombarded with the message that they should live their lives on the sidelines, preferably as sex symbols in fierce competition with each other for the favor of boys. At Halloween, boys are Superman while girls titter as pink fairies, sexy devils, or fluffy animals; girls' bicycles range from "sweetie" to "glitter express," while the boys "thrust" forward on "barebones" and "spitfire."

Girls in the movies (with long eyelashes and big chests) routinely need rescuing, and never by their girl friends or mothers. The one inner-beauty heroine allowed us by DreamWorks, Princess Fiona in Shrek, is erased from all the post-movie commercial fare: packages of M&Ms, Burger King, Go-Gurt, and even the USPS stamps.

From magazines that channel a girl's self-exploration into questions about body shape and hair color to books about rich, bulimic girls who have sexual escapades without consequences in the dressing rooms of expensive department stores, there are two types of pre-packaged girls: "pink and girly" or "red and feisty," both defined by their appeal to boys.

With girls being encouraged from dawn to dusk to choose a shallow lifestyle over the conduct of independent life, we should be glad that Lamb and Brown stepped up to the plate on their behalf. If the first five chapters (what girls wear, watch, hear, read, and do), frighten us, then the final chapter, "Rebel, Resist, Refuse: Sample Conversations With Our Daughters," should make us cheer. It takes us from ways to introduce the "S-word" (stereotype) to our youngest girls to discussing negative identity (cutting, vomiting) with our teenagers.

Yes, we have been introduced"disconcertingly"to the enemy, but we have also been handed the tool that will help our daughters face it head on and come out unscathed. As Brown and Lamb put it, "You can't turn off the world"so teach your daughter to read it."

For more information about Packaging Girlhood, go to, and read the following articles by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown:
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  • On July 16, 2008, troubled teen program wrote:
    Thanks for the post! This book is a good source for parenting teens as well. Thanks to Colby‰s Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb for the genius work you've done.