- Challenge kids’ perceptions that pink is for girls and blue is for boys and let them know that any colour, clothing, toy or book is for them. Too many pink toys signpost girls to grooming and beauty – and in turn, early sexualisation. Let boys know that not all girls only want to play princesses, some like dinosaurs and running too!
- Since Disney Princess launched, it’s no longer what will you dress up as but what Disney Princess will you be, compounded by the fact that supermarkets offer few alternatives. Our kids deserve the chance to play-act a wider range of roles than superhero or princess. Avoid putting kids into boxes with ‘Pirate and Princess’ parties and be creative with themes such as animal, book character, a colour, nature. With dressing up outfits that market a doctor costume for boys and a nurse outfit with pink trims for girls, this is about not limiting your child’s aspirations.
- Call up sexist, homophobic or racist language such as, ‘That’s too girly’ or ‘I’m not playing with that, that’s for girls’, ‘That’s so gay’, or similar that equates the feminine with less value. Call up anyone who says. ‘Stop crying like a girl,’ – it’s totally sexist and teaches boys that feeling vulnerable or expressing emotion is a sign of weakness. Use every opportunity to remind kids that no product or media is ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ – they can wear, read, play with and watch what they like.
- A note about ‘tomboys’. Girls are girls. Some just like their jeans and don’t rate Frozen. Calling a girl a tomboy is like saying she’s an ungirl, denying her her marvellous girlhood and marking her out as different. If a girl has noticed that running like Rey is cooler than walking like Elsa, she’s pretty smart.
- Use any talk or play around Disney or Barbie to talk to your kids about realistic body shapes. ‘Do girls and women you know look like that? No.’ (tiny waist, unnaturally long, stick legs, feet not designed for walking. Notice how sexualised Disney princesses are – see Elsa’s ‘makeover moment’ in Frozen.)
Alternatives: Lottie Dolls are dolls with child bodies. Watch Tree Change Dolls on Youtube and see why putting stripper/plastic surgery make-up on Bratz dolls is such an ugly act.
- Encourage mixed friendships and play that will engage everyone – den building, music, dancing, party games. There are too many divisive messages out there telling girls and boys how different they are. Mixed play will help them see their shared humanity, which helps boys see through sexual objectification of women as they mature and promote healthy relationships. (Studies show that even mild objectification of women makes men more callous towards them, as they are seen as less than human.)
- A Let Toys Be Toys study finds that advertising on UK television featuring construction sets, vehicles, action figures and toy weapons only featured boys playing, and they were shown as active and aggressive. Girls appeared in ads for dolls and toys focused around nurturing, grooming, performance and relationships, and were rarely active, except when dancing. Be conscientious about exposure to ads and start a discussion about what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a boy. Try ‘Boys can do ballet, let’s rent Billy Elliot, women’s football is the fastest growing sport in UK’ for starters.
7.5. Don’t follow the herd when it comes to activities – encourage boys to try choir, girls to do skateboarding. Don’t limit their opportunities to express themselves without fear of judgement.
- Seeing positive role models has a hugely beneficial impact on girls’ aspirations and performance. Talk about and expose your kids to positive role models, such as sportswomen, artists, designers, authors, scientists, programmers (Ada Lovelace was the first!) women in STEM subjects, campaigners and leaders. Find local women to look up to, too. Its important that boys see women in a wide range of ‘doing’ roles too. Show boys a wider range of role models such as charity workers, environmental campaigners and men in caring roles.
- Is one of the first things you say when you see a girl, ‘You look pretty’? It’s lovely seeing girls all dressed up but as so many of us say this, try drawing attention to something other than the way she looks first.
- Talk about the body as purposeful, to be active, for doing rather than being valued for what it looks like. Promote a ‘can do’ attitude to physical activities. Frame exercise and sports as ‘being strong’ as well as health and fitness.
- Promote positive body image and healthy eating. Resist talking about dieting and fat-ist language. Let your child hear you say, ‘I love my body’ (just try it, even if you don’t feel it!) and don’t express negativity or shame about your body or your child’s. 1 in 3 children aged 5/6 say their ideal body shape is thinner. (Source: Women’s Equality Party first policy document)
- Openly challenge sexism in the media – Why is there only one female character in this film and she’s the eye candy? Why is there so little women’s sport on TV? Why are most of the women celebrated in the media for being ‘hot’ /underdressed? Encourage a questioning mind. As my six year old boy said, ‘Mummy don’t be cross but there’s only one girl in Angry Birds and she’s pink.’
Be mindful about the normalisation of the porn and sex industries with female performers on X-Factor and strippers on family shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. When kids become exposed to wider media, talk about photoshopping and unreal photos shoots as just fantasy.
- Body ownership
You can introduce the issue of consent, setting boundaries and body ownership with a child as young as three. If a child says ‘Stop tickling me’, emphasise to them that you have stopped because they asked you to and it is their body. Or, ‘I think it would be nice if you gave aunty a hug, but it’s up to you.’
* Instill confidence in children that they are as good as, as important, as anyone else. Children don’t report for fear of ruining other peoples’ /family lives. See footballer Adam Johnson case of abuse of 15 yr old.
* Instill a sense of bodily integrity and agency in your child. No matter what a person wears, no matter how much the culture shows women’s bodies as commodities to throw away/display/decorate a body has intergrity and deserves respect.
Boys and girls need to know that asking each other, ‘Are you OK with that?’ is essential to healthy relationships. Why?
*NSPCC: 10% of boys age 12/13 are addicted to porn, which eroticises non-consent. That’s just the addicted, the rest will see it even if not looking for it
* 30% of rape victims are under 16
* There were 5,500 sexual assaults in UK schools in last three years, including 600 rapes. Read more here. Plus culture of normalised sexual bullying such as labelling girls ‘sluts’ and groping
* Simon Bailey, Children’s Commissioner reports that 85% child abuse in England undetected. Family abuse a large part.
- Use scientific terminology – vagina, penis – to describe body parts. Matter-of-fact, unembarrassed language empowers by reducing chances of shame and non-verbalisation about bodies and of abuse. Use of scientific language is OK with primary age. As kids mature, talk about sex as natural continuum of healthy relationships.
- Gendered culture and sexualisation damages boys, too
Superhero franchises present a hyper-masculinity that isn’t just strong, but SUPER strong (see actors’ bodies) and too many male representations show resolving conflict with aggression. The pressure is on boys to fit into a type that doesn’t allow them to be caring and kind or feel permitted to show vulnerability. To be fully human. Seeing girls as sexually objectified is detrimental to boys’ enjoying mutually respectful friendships and working relationships.
As Natasha Walter writes in Living Dolls ‘There is a real need to examine the wider culture in which we are bringing up our boys. The assumption that women are there to be objectified rather than seen as fully human, to give others pleasure rather than share in pleasure, is too often embedded in the culture around young people. Too often, boys are encouraged to believe that they must cut themselves off from nurturing, empathetic and intimate behaviour to become fully masculine. As long as we tolerate these assumptions in the name of normal masculinity and femininity, then we will find it tough to challenge the culture of sexual violence.’
Sexualisation shows boys to view girls and women as objects, as less than fully human. At its extreme, it grooms developing men to use and abuse them.
- Never tell a child, ‘He’s mean because he likes you.’ As Joanna Schroeder writes, ‘it equates love and romance with abuse.’ Call up bad behaviour otherwise it suggests the victim is to blame. Don’t romanticise kids’ friendships, let them enjoy the childhood opportunity to enjoy strong friendships with the opposite sex.
- Dads should recognise their immense power as a role model for sons. Let boys see your gentle side as well as your strengths. Show boys that parenting is man’s work too. Encourage communication and emotional intelligence.
- As boys mature and become exposed to more sexist media such as video games and music videos, help them challenge the way culture aligns manhood with violence and feeling power over women.
- As mainstream porn – which is hardcore, body-punishing and violent – fills the gap in up-to-date Sex and Relationships Education for boys from age 12/14, talk, talk talk to boys about what a healthy, consensual relationship looks like. It’s never too early to start on that. When age-appropriate, make sure girls understand that sex is about pleasure. (Many teen girls cite being afraid of sex because of what they have seen in porn.)
- Be pro-active and speak up about these issues – start a conversation with another parent, complain to manufacturers, retailers and book publishers about sexist products or advertising and contribute to the campaign groups listed. Let your school or educators know about your kids’ experiences of the pressures they feel from the wider culture, suggest ways they can engage with the issue.