American Girl magazine, aimed at nine-year-olds, discusses the benefits of loving your body and how misguided it is to try to look like Britney Spears in order to be happy. Junior high schools bring in eating-disorder lecturers and post collages of destructive beauty ideals in their hallways. I would say that when what started as an outsider’s argument becomes the conventional wisdom of a Girl Scout troop, it is a sign of an evolution in consciousness.
The time was right; girls and women were ready to say no to something they found oppressive. This is progress. In spite of this newly developed media literacy, however, I’ve also noticed that it is now an increasingly sexualized ideal that younger and younger girls are beginning to feel they must live up to. The notorious Calvin Klein ad campaigns eroticized sixteen-year-olds when I was a teenager, then eroticized fourteen-year-old models in the early nineties, then twelve-year-olds in the late nineties. GUESS Jeans ads now pose what look like nine-year-olds in provocative settings. And the latest fashions for seven- and eight year-olds re-create the outfits of pop stars who dress like sex workers.
Is this progress? I doubt it. Any number of high school and college projects I have seen—ranging from a CD about “looking perfect” to a senior thesis about the African American beauty myth as it relates to hair—have analyzed media images of women and have taken apart ideals.