Thursday, September 02, 2010

REVIEW: The Lolita Effect

Well, I finally finished The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. It took me a while because I quickly discovered it was too heavy to read right before bed. I would read for a while, then turn out the light and lay there thinking about how my parenting choices, including the things I say, the clothes I buy for Kate, and the media I expose her to all affect the way she will think about sex, her body, her self-worth, etc.

It's a heavy read, not in terms of academic language or laborious chapters, but in terms of the weight it puts on a parent's soul, realizing the huge challenge of raising a healthy, well-adjusted child in today's media culture. Still, it is well worth the read for any parent--especially of daughters, but also of sons, as boys play a part in the harmful web of myths the author, M. Gigi Durham, calls "The Lolita Effect."

One of the biggest things I took away from the book is the conviction that I need to be happy with my body. The comments I make about myself in front of Kate will influence the way she thinks about her body and every woman's body. If I reinforce this notion that to be beautiful, a woman must be rail-thin, have no flab or cellulite, have large, perky breasts, flawless skin, etc., she will pick up on that, and learn to critique herself as well. There's a scene in Mean Girls where the popular girls are all critiquing themselves in front of a mirror, and the outsider (oh, Lindsay Lohan, what happened to you?!) thinks this is strange because she had apparently never thought to be hyper-critical of her own body. It was culturally learned. (There's a book listed in the footnotes on this topic that might be worth a read too: Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.) In the same vein, I am ever more conscious about complimenting Kate's physical appearance to the exclusion of other attributes. (She's a very pretty girl, but is also smart and tenacious, and we should emphasize these things so that she does not equate her worth with her physical beauty.)

One thing that caught me off guard with this book was its very pro-sexuality perspective. Being steeped in Christian media, I realized that (even though I knew this was not a Christian book) I expected this book to couch its arguments in terms of modesty, and a general wariness of sex (or at least leaning toward the flip-a-switch-on-your-wedding-night sort of sexuality). It startled me and even rubbed me the wrong way to see the first line of the preface: "The Lolita Effect begins with the premise that children are sexual beings." That put me off, mainly because that seems to be language that pedophiles use, but the author's point is simply that sexuality is a normal part of humanity, not something that magically emerges at puberty. Durham is definitely not urging early sexual activity, but rather she is making a distinction between sexuality (an aspect of our being, like emotionality or physicality) and sexualization (the valuing of a person based on sexual appeal or inappropriate imposition of sexuality on another person). She does talk about sex in ways that may make more conservative readers uncomfortable, but the insights and tips Durham provides are nonetheless valuable for any parent, teacher, or youth worker seeking to help a child navigate the onslaught of conflicting sexual messages in our culture.

It is important to note that the author is not a psychologist or counselor, but a scholar of mass communication and journalism. Her emphasis is on the way media (particularly teen girl and women's fashion magazines, but also advertisments and various products and their marketing) impact girls' views of their bodies and the way they dress and express themselves--and on the way boys see girls and define attractiveness. Likewise, the guidance she offers to combat these harmful effects are based largely around media analysis. We must help kids understand that Barbies are not realistically proportioned, that models are airbrushed, and how businesses (and by extension, magazines dependent on ad revenue) thrive on making us feel inadequate without their beauty products. The "And What We Can Do About It" part of the subtitle is no ploy--a decent chunk of each chapter contains practical tips for adults, like talking to girls about clothes and the messages they convey, looking closely at advertisements, and analyzing boy-girl relationships (why does the girl care so much about what the boy thinks? etc.)

I feel I can barely scratch the surface in this review of all the insights I gleaned from this book, so allow me to share just a few more tidbits:
  • We have a strange relationship with sex in our culture. We glorify it in the abstract, but can't talk intelligently about the issues surrounding it. Case in point: Seventeen magazine ran an article on vaginal health that was pulled from newsstands for being indecent and "too graphic," while articles on how to please your guy are unquestioned.
  • The Barbie ideal would require size 4 hips, size 2 waist, and size 10 bust. Girls (and grown women--who's with me?) are seeking an unattainable standard. Teenagers are begging for Botox and boob jobs. Due to the globalization of media, even women in cultures that have historically had very different standards of beauty are striving for the western standard--Indian and African women bleaching their skin, Asian women having leg-lengthening surgery, etc.
  • As we've long known, women dress for women, but they do it based on men's presumed standard. This one is ironic, because women really do seem to care and notice more what other women are wearing, but we are judging each other's looks based on what we think men want. Durham points out how layouts in Cosmo and Maxim often don't look that different--both men and women are being inundated with the same ideals of female sexiness.
  • Female sexualization often bears the imagery of sex work. Durham describes a little girl who came to her door on Halloween dressed in a tube top, miniskirt, and fishnets, proclaiming herself a Bratz doll (worst kids' product EVER) and the author notes how similar the child looked to child prostitutes she'd seen in Cambodia. Sexy clothing for kids, like thong underwear, T-shirts with suggestive sayings on them, or the costume described above may seem innocent because the child herself is not trying to be sexy, but it normalizes a darker side of the world, where children are sold for sex--and not as far away as you'd think. Atlanta is a huge hub for child sex trafficking today.
This book had a bigger effect on my own thoughts and words than most books I've read lately. I have become more sensitized to the cultural norms and pressures surrounding sex and beauty, things that we often take for granted because they are so ingrained. I've started to self-analyze why I wear certain things like makeup or lingerie. Is it to please men? Women? Is it because it's what is "normal," and I simply don't question it? I was quite pleased to see in Durham's conclusion a description of her daughter playing dress up. The child wore a gauzy dress, a tool belt, high heels, and a cowboy hat... but Durham's final point was not to pick apart what is stereotypically feminine or masculine, as if all feminine things had been co-opted into this culture of sexualization. Rather, her point was that her daughter  was experiencing the innocent "joy of self-adornment"--dressing a certain way because it made her happy, not because anyone expected her to.

Overall, that is the message of The Lolita Effect: free girls from media-perpetuated expectations about sexuality so they can be themselves, nurture all their gifts and strengths, and be healthy, self-confident young women.

1 comment:

Katie Bug said...

Thank you for this review! This really sounds like a book I'd like to read...and I'm glad you gave a warning for conservative readers like myself!

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