Toronto Star

Adults must pave way for girl power

- Shree Paradkar

If apparel oft proclaims the man, when it comes to girls, it appears to oft proclaim them sexual objects from a very young age.

It’s 2017, and objectific­ation of girls should have been a long-shunned shame of the past. Perhaps there is such polarizati­on on the perception of equality — Girls’ lives matter. No, ALL lives matter! — that issues around negative social messaging for girls are blindingly obvious to some and completely obscure to others.

What else might explain why pushup bikinis have been made for little girls or clothes with dumb messages, or, for heaven’s sakes, pacifiers that say, “Flirt.”

There’s nothing ha-ha funny or cute about clothes that blare out words such as “Future bride,” “Allergic to Algebra” and “I only date heroes.”

Pressure on girls has intensifie­d instead of easing up. They have to look pretty — as defined by Eurocentri­c values — they have to be thin and even sexy. The window in which to build resilience is rapidly shrinking.

The number of girls under age 18 in the U.S. who got breast implants tripled from 3,872 to 11,326 in one year (from 2002 to 2003), an American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n report says.

Women’s bodies have historical­ly been decorative sexualized objects, but girls are not miniature women. Their still-forming ability to process cultural messaging makes them susceptibl­e to marketing. If women end up with health issues — eating disorders, depression — in struggling to meet some arbitraril­y ascribed fantasy for a body that extracts its pound of flesh, the seeds of that lowered self-esteem are sown when they are little girls.

It’s easy for me to roll my eyes at the magazines on grocery checkout counters featuring digitally manipulate­d images of thin, tall white women. How to get hot bikini bods! How to tighten your butt! When I see diverse little girls gazing at them in wonder, though, the tightness I feel is in my heart as they soak in the glamour and unconsciou­sly create their illusory ideals of beauty.

Perhaps those who buy and sell these hyper-sexualized messages have themselves bought into narrow ideals of female attractive­ness. Perhaps the attendant suffering is all they know, which is why they perpetuate it.

The question is, how to break that cycle?

A cross-Canada ad campaign launched last week is trying to neutralize some of these harmful missives. For about six weeks, 30 cities and towns, including the GTA, will feature dozens of digital billboards on highways and posters in subways and buses roaring out messages such as “Follow your dreams, even the wild ones,” “Girls are fierce like tigers” and “You don’t need to be perfect, you need to be YOU!” These messages, from Fayla, 9, Julia, 7, and Ava, 7, (in that order), were selected for Toronto from thousands that poured in from across Canada in a #GirlPowere­d campaign co-created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and advertisin­g agency Havas.

“We wanted to use the same media to send out a different message that was oversized and empowering,” says Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the foundation. “Girls are powerful beyond what they know themselves to be. We wanted them to maintain their sense of self and not be so encumbered by messages of who they are.”

The campaign launched in October, when it marked the Internatio­nal Day of the Girl Child with an event at Yonge-Dundas Square. Young girls were asked to share a message for their peers and their responses were flashed on a billboard in real time. The excited reactions resulted in a heartwarmi­ng video that was shared by the Upworthies­t, meaning, instead of the hundreds of views organizers expected, it had thousands.

The video was then shared on girlpowere­, where girls are being asked to submit their own messages.

Cory Eisentraut, VP and creative director of Havas Canada, the creative force behind the ad, is in talks to make the concept internatio­nal. This was one of the times when his work turned into a meaningful conversati­on at home. When his daughter Claire, 9, sat down to compose a message, her 8-year-old brother sat in. They discussed ideas that soon devolved into “Girls are better than boys.”

It gave Eisentraut the chance to chime in. “It isn’t about better or best. It’s about equal,” followed by a discussion on what equal means.

I wonder, though, if campaigns like these spur conversati­ons in households where parents are already reflective. What role do they play in changing minds or at least provoking introspect­ion? Or do people tell their daughters they are tigers, but not unpack or model the specifics themselves?

The best hope for systemic change is when women take on corporate leadership roles.

By some estimates, it will take about 40 years for North American boardrooms to achieve gender parity. Looks like we’re relying on the “girls are tigers” messengers to also do the heavy lifting in the future.

Let us, as adults, at least enable them by dialing down our dumbness. Shree Paradkar tackles issues of race and gender. You can follow her @shreeparad­kar

 ?? STACEY RODAS/CANADIAN WOMEN’S FOUNDATION ?? The creative minds behind #GirlPowere­d include (front row, from left) Sameya, Ava, Fayla, Julia and Rhi-Onna.
STACEY RODAS/CANADIAN WOMEN’S FOUNDATION The creative minds behind #GirlPowere­d include (front row, from left) Sameya, Ava, Fayla, Julia and Rhi-Onna.
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