Studies show pop culture teaches girls that beauty is essential


April 04, 1991|By Patricia McLaughlin | Patricia McLaughlin,Universal Press Syndicate

The only people I know these days who are truly devoted to fashion at its girliest are little kids. Three-, 4- and 5-year-olds still want to look like Madonna -- or Barbie. They're fascinated by makeup, nail polish, jewelry, high heels, long gloves and all manner of feminine froufrou. They roll their eyes and bat their eyelashes like baby Mae Wests. But it doesn't last.

At 4, Becky refused to be parted from her purple miniskirt even long enough for it to be washed; she crawled out of bed in the middle of the night to pull it on over her pajamas and went back to sleep content. Now, at 10, she lives in sweat shirts, borrowed from her dad, that come almost down to the knees of her blue jeans.

The silhouette -- in the form of oversized sweaters over leggings -- has been borrowed by designers and fashionable women because it's comfortable and flattering. To them, it's a look. For young girls, though --and adolescents who have been wearing it at least since the 1950s, when it involved one of Daddy's billowy white dress shirts over dungarees -- it seems to function also as a disguise, a way to hide.

At a stroke, an extra-large sweat shirt camouflages the actual body inside it and avoids committing itself on the issue of that body's gender.

It's easy to imagine why girls might want to do both. Even kids probably notice that grown women tend to work harder than men for less money and less respect -- and still have to do all the housework when they come home. This is not a fate you'd expect any sensible 10-year-old person to embrace with enthusiasm or advertise in her dress.

But you don't have to look to the unequal status of adult women to see why girls might not want their gender -- or their bodies -- to be the first thing people notice about them.

It's natural for adolescents to obsess about their looks -- their hair is weird, their noses are ugly, their skin is awful, they're too tall, too short,too fat, too clumsy. But American pop culture handles boys' and girls' worries differently. It tells boys not to worry too much about how they look, because it's what they do that counts. Then it turns around and tells girls they're right to worry because, for them, all that really counts is being beautiful and thin.

A few years ago, an analysis of prime-time television found that, forteen-age girls on TV, the importance of good looks far overshadowed ability. Girl characters were more passive than young male characters, got less attention, and spent most of their time on screen shopping, grooming and dating.

The study didn't track weight, but how many fat-girl TV stars can you think of?

Little girls in the audience get the message. One study of 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds found that nearly half the 9-year-olds were dieting -- although few of them were overweight. During hearings on abuse of over-the-counter diet pills last year, an obesity specialist told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee she had seen 8-year-old patients who had used diet pills.

From age 12 on, girls are more likely than boys to suffer from depression, and studies have tied their higher depression rates to their worries about weight and appearance. One study found that the more time teen-age girls spent on stereotypically feminine activities like shopping, doing their hair and putting on makeup, the more depressed they were likely to be.

Only last month the American Association of University Women released the results of a major study that found that, at age 9, a majority of girls were confident, assertive and felt positive about themselves -- but by the time they got to high school, fewer than a third still felt that way.

No wonder they hide.

Patricia McLaughlin is a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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