RSS Feed Visit our Tumblr blog Visit us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Write us an emailDonate to SPARK!

Seven body confidence tips from actual teens

by Georgia Luckhurst

I know I’m not alone in finding that my relationship with my body is changes from day to day, depending on any number of factors. We hear a lot of discussion about teenage girls’ self-esteem, and not just from anxious parents or kindly teachers: the buzzwords of today’s op-eds and research projects are diets, self-loathing, photoshop, size zero. Concern is long overdue, but it is also worthless without conversation – if we only listen to the onlookers, and not those who are experiencing much lamented societal pressure, how will we really inspire change? And if we only focus on the problem, how will we devise a solution?

The best way to find out what pressures affect teenage girls, and to understand the effect of cultural expectations on our self esteem, is to talk to teenage girls themselves. I decided to speak to my friends, as well as teenage girls of the Twittersphere, who offered their tips on sound body confidence.

Embrace the selfie, as well as your individuality.

“I take selfies. It’s nice to look back on a picture and remember how good you felt about yourself that day. That always helps me. And I make sure I tell myself that I can look good. When I’m feeling good about myself, I’m not like, ‘Oh, but Alexa Chung’s better.’ I try not to compare myself to other people too much.” – Lydia

We’re never going to look like another person, or be another person. The only thing we can count on is our complete and utter individuality. I’ve found that if I don’t like a picture of myself, the longer I look at it, the more I grow to like it. In our current frame of mind, celebrating ourselves is an unfamiliar, strange thing – but it shouldn’t be. So take selfies if that’s what you’re into, and do not compare yourself to other girls as though that competition is healthy, and remember all the while that what you are doing is something that will have only beneficial outcomes: increased confidence will impact on your enjoyment of life.

Start each morning positively.

“To feel good about my appearance, I tell myself I’m beautiful in the mirror everyday.” – Jessie

Eat something for breakfast that energises you and makes you feel alert – a smoothie, yoghurt, something that makes you feel good  – and listen to a playlist of your favourite songs as you’re getting ready. Mornings might not be the best part of anybody’s day, but by beginning it positively you’re more likely to enjoy the rest of the day.

Be less judgemental of others, and it will reflect on your treatment of yourself.

“This may seem like an odd tip, but: never ever criticizing how other girls look. Also, telling myself that exercise is for mental health rather than for aesthetic reasons.” – Rori

As I’ve said previously, you are not in competition with other girls. The world may tell you you should be, but shaming other girls’ appearance will only cause you to fear your own – to constantly worry about what others say about you in turn. Don’t buy into patriarchal myths!

Wear the clothes that make you feel great…

“Wearing red makes me feel like I can do anything. Plus red goes with nearly every skin tone!” – Aviv

…And wear the clothes that fit you – ignore the number on the label.

“Don’t be ashamed to buy buy bigger bras or underwear! Once I finally went out and bought the right size I felt so much better!” – Maureen

The number on the label does not define your worth as a human being. Attempting to wear clothes that don’t fit your body will only make you uncomfortable and miserable, so be kind to yourself and wear underwear (and outerwear!) that fits.

Surround yourself with the right people.

“I love it when you are hanging out with your friends and you are all complimenting each other, not because you’re trying too hard to be liked, just because you all feel so comfortable and help each other feel good and more confident (which is what I think friends are there for!)” – Amelia

The right people: they may be hard to find, but once you do you’ll know exactly how important they are. Real friends will never give you reason to second guess yourself, and will never make you feel bad about or doubt yourself for the things you can’t control, like your appearance or your character. What’s more, real friends will make you value those things about you more: you should always feel comfortable and happy around the people you’re with. If it’s a chore to hang out with them, or they make you feel in any way small or unworthy, they don’t deserve your time.

And finally…

Watch the music video for Pretty Hurts hundreds of times.

Even Beyoncé feels it sometimes.

SPARK Artists: Weaving as art, not just “women’s work”

by Annemarie McDaniel

This interview is part of our ongoing SPARK Artists series. 

Dianne Lake is a current college student at Yale University, involved with consent and sexual respect education and a campus a capella group Shades, which sings music of the African diaspora. I have known Dianne for years, but I first learned about her interest in textiles only about a year ago, when she wore one of her first hard-woven scarfs to a seminar we are in. Dianne has now been weaving for almost two years, and has studied both at her university and abroad to learn the techniques and histories behind the craft.

Annemarie: I have loved seeing you wear your pieces around school for the past few years, and see how they’ve been getting more and more elaborate. When did you first start learning to weave?

Dianne: I’ve always been interested in sewing and creating clothes. I’m in Ezra Stiles College at my university, Yale, and we have a special fiber arts studio in our building. I saw it as I was walking by, and there was someone working there really late at night. When I saw their work, I just thought, “wow, this is amazing!” I began by meeting with our instructor, who comes in once a week for four hours to help you come up with an idea of what you want to do and figure out how to create that. This includes things like how much thread you need, how we need to wind it, and she guides you through the process without just doing it all for you.

I’d always been into learning how to create fabric and more so structured pieces, but I thought it was really interesting to be able to create a piece of fabric from scratch or make a scarf. There’s a difference when you’re knitting or crocheting from working the whole machine. There is this whole process to create a piece of work. So I applied to join the studio and now I’ve been a part of it for two years! I just absolutely fell in love with it. It’s something that, because there are so many different steps to the process. You’ve got to count all of the thread, you’ve got to wind it all out, you have to do it in a certain pattern so nothing gets crisscrossed with anything else and then you have to thread it into the loom. You tie little knots, one by one by one, you wind the machine, the tension has to be perfectly right for every single thread before you can even start. And then you can start the process of actually weaving. When you reach the end of the process, you feel so fulfilled with what you create.

Wow, there’s so many steps involved! I think of weaving as working on the loom, but it sounds like even just setting up the thread and the loom takes a lot of time and precision.

Yes definitely! Something that really inspired me to pursue the idea of creating things from scratch further was a guest weaving instructor our studio brought in. She lived in Peru and learned how to back strap weave there. Back strap weaving is basically everything you do with the loom, but with pieces of wood tied around your waist to a tree. Everything that the loom normally does, is all in your hands, using your body as the machine. She was telling us about how a lot of indigenous women in Latin America still weave in this way because they don’t have looms, and this is the tradition they have passed down for years. After her lesson, I applied for a fellowship to go to Guatemala because the handmade textile industry there is remarkable, and I got it!

That’s awesome! What was it like?

I went to Guatemala for about two weeks to attend a weaving school there, and I learned from two women that were a part of local indigenous tribes. They would ran the weaving school for people who were tourists, people in the area, and anyone who happened to stumble by, and also were a part of a weaving collective that had other women from different villages also contributing. The Guatemalan culture is so deeply filled with textile art as part of their tradition, as part of their daily wear, as part of their history, that you could see it everywhere.

I was in Quetzaltenango, Xela (pronounced Shela) for short. When you go to Xela, you see all of the women are wearing traditional attire called a huipil. The whole thing is hand woven, there’s a top and then there’s a skirt, hand woven embroidery everywhere. Every village or every tribe has a specific embroidery design that they use on their huipil. So if you were familiar enough with the culture, you would be able to tell which highland region this woman is from, depending on the type of embroidery on her huipil. That’s the amount of detail and intricacy that goes into creating these clothes.  When I was there, they taught me how to set up a loom, back strap weave, and create detailed embroidery.

What have been some of the reactions you’ve gotten from people when you tell them about how interested in weaving you are or tell them about your summer fellowship?

I’ve had a wide range of reactions, mostly positive but some a little patronizing. Most of the positives come out of the feeling of, “can you make me something?”

Good point. Speaking of which, Dianne, can you make me a scarf?

[laughs] Exactly! I love making stuff for people, so that’s OK. People are really interested in it because they think it’s crazy that I can just create things like that. But people also think it’s crazy that I’ve taken to it so much, that it’s become such an important thing about me. For example, when I went to Guatemala, people would be shocked. They’d say things like, “you literally went to Guatemala to make scarves,” and it just seems so crazy to some people. Even when I was there, there were volunteers at the weaving school who couldn’t believe I travelled all that way just to learn how to weave!

I wonder if it’s because some people think of weaving like knitting or crocheting, and so they can’t believe you’re getting money to travel and learn how to crochet but with thinner thread, in their eyes.

Literally! At one point in a conversation with someone, and I think this was coming more from a joking point of view, but they were telling someone else about how I went to Guatemala saying ,“Yes, Dianne got a fellowship to go to Guatemala to weave. There are people applying for medical fellowships to go treat people in need that don’t get funding, and she got one to go weave in Guatemala.”

Which what there saying is true! But there’s nothing I can really say, and it’s not that I’m doing is any more important than what other people are, but it’s something that’s really important to me and important to a lot of culture’s histories and current lives.

I feel like if an art student was going to Italy to study Michelangelo and they were painting like Michelangelo for a month and taking special classes to learn special techniques, people would respect them!

Right. People take it a lot of different ways; mostly people are just not familiar with hearing about this kind of art or knowing how to take it seriously.

How do you feel that learning to weave has helped you to grow as a person, in understanding your own artistic style, or really in any way?

I think it’s really made me appreciate the basic things that create things that create things that are very meaningful. The things people take for granted. It really makes me think about the other things in my life I take for granted and I know that, people don’t think about the thread in their clothes ever. But now I think about this all the time, because I’m always weaving. Weaving gives me time to think about these things.

I’ve also to grow artistically because it’s helped me realize that art doesn’t have to be defined by the usual standards. A lot of things that are art are overlooked. This could easily be seen, to some people, as something very domestic. You’re making clothes. But it’s so much more than that. The amount of skill and time and patience that has to go into a single piece says that. I feel like there are a lot of things like this that aren’t given enough credit for how artful they are.

I agree, and I think that so often the types of art that are overlooked most are the types of art that women are making, because it’s labeled as domestic. I think we see that with pottery, basket weaving, or just other work associated with women.

Right. I look up to my weaving instructor, Barbara Hurley, and the guest weaving instructor from Peru we hosted as well, but there’s no other people specifically where I look at all of their weaving work. I’ve noticed how it’s difficult to find people who are renowned for their weaving. This is something I should be thinking more about; learning more about the important people in the industry. But then again, it’s something that’s so widely done, and it’s not something people become particularly famous at, at least not in the mainstream. But there is a whole other culture of weaving and weavers; a whole other network that has each other’s information and art. It’s really about knowing where to look for that whole weaving scene, which isn’t appreciated by the mainstream.

What is your next project you’re working on?

I’m really interested in the process of making something from scratch. One thing the guest instructor showed us when she came to visit was spinning yarn from wool. While she was talking to us, she was spinning yarn from a drop-spindle, holding it in her hand and spinning thread. So now I’ve applied for another fellowship in Ezra Stiles. They’ve given me the opportunity to have another project where the weaving studio is going to invest in spinning wheels. Me and my instructor are working on this project–it’s going to be an interactive project with the whole college, actually. It’s going to be set up outside of the dining hall for people to contribute spinning the wool into yarn. Once it is all spun by our own students, I’m working on creating a tapestry out of that yarn that will be then hung in the college. It will be something created by students in the college or whoever is walking by. I want students to be a part of the process, and in the future, say “wow, I spun that thread now in this tapestry hanging on our college wall.” That’s something people will help create that will last forever.

Quiet can be powerful

by Ajaita Saini

“Honestly, as much as I love you, I thought you were a bitch when I first met you. You tend to give off the I-don’t-want-to-talk-to-you vibe.” This was coming from my best friend, and I wondered how many other people had the same impression of me. Yeah, okay, maybe I do come off as uninterested. But I’m just not gifted at the art of meandering conversation that oozes at school dances and parties, and neither can I pull it off.

When you’re quiet (or refuse to smile profusely), people automatically assume that something’s wrong.  If you’re a girl, there’s a general pressure to be quieter than boys, because that’s what the approach is at school and in a workplace. Eventually, it ends up making it more difficult for us to speak up at all. It’s not just at social events where this occurs; our school and work environments are set up in a way that encourage extroversion in order to make us into “ideal” students or colleagues rather than someone who’d rather work alone. We’re expected to become extroverts in order to be seen, heard, and considered successful. But it doesn’t have to be that way

At a parent teacher night in third grade, I was suggested to join a leadership program because I didn’t participate enough in class. The program was supposed to instill leadership in young girls by presenting news reports that would be taped in a mock news session. (I remember thinking about how reading off cue cards was a really stupid attempt to shape me into a leader.) The program didn’t work (obviously), and I was still “stuck” as a quiet girl who didn’t participate in class. In fact, the entire experience made me a lot more self-conscious. I didn’t think that my quietness was a problem, but my teachers made it sound like a defect in my personality. Even now, as a sophomore in high school, my teachers favor the ones who talk constantly–meanwhile I’m always seen as the weakest link.

Of course, that begs the question: how can shier, quieter girls become leaders? And honestly, it’s a really tough question to answer–but maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Leadership isn’t always about being able to publicly speak, it’s about being passionate about something and trying to cause a change.

Many of our significant figures in world history have claimed to be introverts. Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech on human rights in France, to thousands of French citizens and United Nations delegates. Rosa Parks helped lead the civil rights movement in the US. And recently, Emma Watson gave a momentous speech highlighting feminism through her “He For She” Initiative. And despite the fact that each one of them was soft-spoken, they used those soft-spoken voices and took the role of a leader in order to do what they believed was right.

Although noteworthy examples, even these perpetuate the stereotypical ideas of leadership where being a leader means standing at the podium, but leadership comes in many different forms. Personally, I strongly believe in advocating girls in STEM, and I work to educate others about girls’ potential through girl scouts and SPARK. Even though I’ve never gotten behind a podium and spoke to hundreds of people, I’m spreading my ideas in a different way.

It’s difficult for me to get involved and participate as an activist, especially when I’m a true believer in something. A lot of times I end up showing my “activist” side by sitting in the back of the room and nodding to the person who’s actually speaking their mind. And yet I always WANT to prove to others that I’m an activist and a feminist. The stereotypical notion is that activists are the ones who jump up in front of the crowd and state their beliefs to anyone who’s listening. And even though there are people like that, I’m not. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have beliefs or ideas about how to spark change in the world, and that certainly doesn’t make me any less a feminist. It feels odd knowing that I’m part of an organization that advocates activism, but it made me realize that activism doesn’t solely rely on public speaking. I learned that I can express myself through other mediums, including my writing and my art, which send much more valuable messages than anything I’d be forced to say.

Being an introvert doesn’t always mean you stay quiet. It doesn’t mean that you’re shy, you don’t make jokes, you don’t speak up. It’s about cherishing what’s been said. We can only thrive if we’re allowed to be who we are, not how we’re expected to be. Because as much as there’s a need for extroverts in this world, there’s a need for introverts as well. If there was rain all the time, the world would be flooded. If there were sun all the time, the world would burn. If everyone was the same, the world would be boring and lifeless, because there is life in diversity. As a whole, we should be open to value some silence, because silence is a space for contemplation and imagination.

 

“Adam, try these apples!”

by Elisabed Gedevanishvili

I often find myself a subject of random, almost creepy glares. As I speak, or watch TV, sing in shower, or twerk in my room, I feel as if someone’s watching me and critiquing my behavior according to a prewritten, unkown criteria. Like all boundaries, these criteria must have been created by someone or something. Some may say that it requires maturity, adulthood, to start an investigation and try to figure out the origins of this marking scheme. But isn’t it better to start early and find out, rather than live for years and years and still be defeated by that random, almost creepy glare?

There are several texts that lay as a foundation to many others, and the Bible is one of them. This book of all books has led many generations forward. Even today, it helps many people distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. While it guided kings to wise decisions, it has also shaped some of the most wounding prejudices in society. Even the first few pages and their interpretation have caused anger, abuse and those random, almost creepy glares. The first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, opens the scene with a story of the creation of the world. Adam and Eve, the first humans described on these first pages, were banished from the glorious Garden of Eden because they had eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eve, the female was first to taste and suggest the fruit to Adam, her male companion.

Girls all over the world have experienced the harsh baggage that came from being a descendant of Eve, a woman allegedly guilty of abusing her rights and seducing Adam into trying the forbidden fruit. Although Adam also ate the fruit, it was Eve who suggested it to him. Apparently because of Eve’s so-called mistake, women are the ones who seduce, who make men sin, and who are responsible for not paying attention when a husband cheats. Fortunately as a sixteen year old girl, I have not been yet accused of those subconscious, involuntary crimes. But I have often come across the idea that I should not strive to receive the best education possible, because after all I am a man’s “helper”  in need of guidance that will stop me from making the same mistake as Eve did.

Many interpretations of the Bible have taught us that women need to be tamed, because if set free they will ruin lives as they have ruined our chance to live eternally in the Garden of Eden. To this day, every time I dance or speak, I see people watching, making sure I don’t do anything inappropriate, anything Eve would have done. Of course the expectations are not only set up for girls; there are plenty of things that boys aren’t “supposed” to do and  are watched for. But if their big brother urges guys to be strong and successful, my big sister tells me to be weak and submissive, smart but not too arrogant, beautiful but not hot, independent but at the same time dependent on my “special friend”.  These rule-like expectations derive at least in part from the first book of the Bible. They arise from a single conclusion of Adam’s and Eve’s story: women cannot be left alone to wander all over the world. We have to be controlled; made sure that we neither trick nor overrule anyone. But if someone somehow forgets to design that observing, random, almost creepy glare, a sixteen year old girl shall be punished because she was the one who forgot how to behave, not the person who forgot to monitor her!

If Eve was punished with banishment from the Garden of Eden by God, how will I be punished? Maybe I will be banished from my friends, relatives, family my own Garden of Eden? Although the punishment varies from individual to individual, it often includes rumors, bullying and nivijhu der. Rus I don’t see you.  My favorite is the last one. What could be more fascinating than seeing responsible adults acting like you, a sixteen year old, don’t deserve their attention neither in a heated discussion nor in a casual tête-à-tête. Though we get to grow and learn from all these experiences, there’s still a serpent in the back of our minds suggesting that we are wrong, that we deserve to be punished. We look back, remember the story of Adam and Eve and sometimes, only sometimes, blame Eve for not doing what she was told to do.

The beauty of the Bible, or any text, is that it can be interpreted in billions of different ways. We have always known Eve as the original bad girl. But why was she bad when she wanted to know more? Maybe she was curious;maybe she strived for knowledge. I didn’t know Eve, but she has always been my inspiration. I have always wanted to be like her, grabbing on to the fruit that would bring me something new, undiscovered. Instead of a driving force behind the existing ideal portrait of a girl, Eve should be a symbol of curiosity, a girl’s desire to explore and know more. Her character should not relate to the necessity to control girls, but to the necessity to set girls free, give them opportunity to explore and become who they dream to become. And while the Bible could be interpreted in many different ways, Eve should always be the woman that people create typography portrait of.

P.S The next time I get that random, creepy glare assessing if I, just like Eve impose any threat to the society I won’t feel insecure. Why? Because I know that although to some Eve means a mistake, to me she means knowledge, curiosity, thinking, independence and so much more that you and I cannot fit on a single sheet of paper!

The shade(ism) of it all

by Sam Holmes

It took me a minute to process what she had just said. It was pretty straight-forward, but I struggled to really wrap my mind around it. She paused, and then repeated herself: “I want to study outside, but I can’t afford to get any darker. This is as dark as I am willing to get.” One of my classmates, someone who seemed so confident in herself, seemed genuinely afraid of a darker shift in her complexion. I wasn’t even part of that conversation–I just heard it in passing–but her reaction stuck with me for the rest of the day, despite its brevity. Then as the days passed, I began to notice the same attitude in other exchanges between classmates, especially my fellow black women.

Shadeism was not a major problem for me until I became a college student. Over the years, I have become a little too well-acquainted with more –isms than I am comfortable with: classism, ableism, sexism, racism, and more. Those broad, umbrella forms of discrimination were such constant forces in my life that I felt as if I knew the entire spectrum of oppressive institutions. So shadeism threw a curveball at me.  In high school, I definitely had classmates who judged people based on race, but that system was different. Since there were so few people of color, we were lumped into “white” and “other.” The latter category was fairly limited, so there were not many deeper divisions within our identity of otherness.

But my college has a vibrant black community; it’s one of my favorite things about the university. I share classrooms and common rooms with people from across the globe. Seeing people who look like me has reduced some of the warped self-image that I had from growing up in such a homogenously white town.  However, I’m now seeing how the range of backgrounds within the black community can sometimes be a point of contention. The whole “team light skin versus team dark skin” debate has unspoken undercurrents on my campus. I’ve heard guys talk about girls’ hair texture, eye color, skin tone, and other traits. In these circles, the most desirable girls are the ones who are white or half white. They garner the most attention, receive the most compliments, and even receive more homework help from the guys.

This whole experience has made me think about my appearance more when I look in the mirror. Going to school in the south, I have been getting more sunlight than I have ever had before. My foundation no longer matches my skintone and a series of unfortunate tanlines have been making guest appearances on my shoulders and legs. Normally, this would not bother me. But now I am tempted to ask myself about the potential repercussions that would come with a change in my complexion? Would I move further from coveted fairness and closer to stigmatized darker skin? I wonder whether or not this is a legitimate fear.

In these moments of doubt, my mind wanders back to the stories that my relatives have told me about race relations. Specters of the paper bag test, Jim Crow laws, and white imperialist standards of beauty permeate my thoughts. While this de jure form of discrimination has been crossed out of legal documents, its legacy is still strong. Media tend to prefer black actresses with lighter skin. If an ad campaign features a black woman, the spokesperson is more likely to resemble Beyoncé than Lupita. While we slowly inch away from this paradigm, there are still miles and miles of progress to be made.

Media are severely lacking in portraying people of color, and they rarely show the spectrum of possible skintones. Fortunately, there are groups dedicated to changing this abysmal reality. My SPARK sisters have been highlighting the dangers of colorisms before I began to experience it firsthand, exploring how shadeism impacts young women. [Ed. note: our 'Diverse & Lovely' colorism toolkit will be released soon!] Across the globe, this emphasis on light skin has caused women to have the same reaction that I did and question the consequences of their complexions. Companies prey on this insecurity and produce harmful bleaching creams. Their products cater to women of light and medium skin tones. Darker women do not deserve to exist in their world. On the rare occasion that they do feature a black woman, advertisements will use photoshop to lighten their skin tone. There is this unspoken message: darker skin is not worth displaying. With their ethos, darker is bad. This is fully intentional. These companies benefit from internalized hatred. Consequently, they do everything in their power to perpetuate such feelings of inadequacy.

I am grateful to be a part of the movement against shadeism. And, while I have my moments of insecurity, I appreciate that skin tone has not been a major problem in my life. I empathize with my classmates who continue to fight this daily battle. The next time that someone feels isolated from shadeism, I will whip out my laptop and show them that there is solidarity in ending the institution.

Currently, my campus is blanketed in Autumn’s cloak. I am spending less time outside, and the bright summer days are almost behind us. However, when the next sunny day does visit us, you will find me studying on the grass, letting the sun paint me a new complexion, and enjoying every minute of it.

Research Blog: Barbie can limit girls’ career dreams

by Jenn Chmielewski

Okay, I admit it. As much as I would love to say that I was a little feminist socialist as a child, impervious to the sexualized gendered marketing scheme that is Barbie, I cannot. I was one of the 99% of girls that played with that skinny, large-breasted, blond haired plastic toy[1] and I thought she was the perfection of beauty (I didn’t realize at the time that a life-sized Barbie with her body proportions is physically impossible). My sisters and I would spend hours dressing Barbie in the coolest clothes and setting her up on romantic dates with Ken in his pink convertible. I learned a lot from Barbie: that looking good meant being thin (and white and blonde) and being the object of Ken’s affections was more important than my smarts and a career. Granted, I can’t blame just Barbie. I got these kinds of messages pretty much everywhere in the media (including the good old Disney movies I used to love) but still, Barbie was a huge part of my childhood. Fortunately for me, I also had some pretty positive influences, like my mom who encouraged me to have confidence in my brains and dream big instead of being so focused on my looks. And I think I’m doing pretty well, but I still wonder how much playing with Barbie and her sexualized outfits might have impacted me, and how she might continue to impact what other girls see as their possible futures and careers.

It turns out that researchers Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen[2] have also been thinking about this question, and decided to actually test it in a laboratory. They came up with a clever experiment to see how playing with Barbie affected the career options girls thought they could have versus what they thought boys could do. Since Barbie comes in a variety of career options nowadays, Dr. Sherman and Dr. Zurbriggen were curious to see whether a Barbie with a career might have a better career-focused influence on girls than a more old-fashioned appearance-focused Barbie. So they set up a lab and had girls who were 4-7 years old play with either a “fashion” Barbie, “doctor” Barbie, or Mrs. Potato Head doll (this was the control group, or the group the researchers designed to be the baseline that the other two groups could be compared to).  Then the girls looked at pictures of different occupations that are either traditionally female-dominated (the usual suspects like teacher, nurse, flight attendant) or male-dominated (like doctor, police officer, construction worker). The researchers asked all the girls whether they thought they could have the job in the picture when they grew up and whether or not they thought a boy could have the job when he grew up.

And what do you think they found? Well, it turns out that across the board, girls in this study thought that boys could have more careers than they could, especially when it came to the jobs that men tend to dominate, like firefighter and police officer. This finding kinda sucks, right? Girls just don’t think they can do as much as boys even when they are little kids. Depressing. But the researchers also found differences between the girls based on which toy they played with. It probably won’t surprise any of you that the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head actually reported feeling like they had more career options than the girls who played with Barbie did. And that was for girls playing with both the “doctor” Barbie and “fashion” Barbie. Barbie as a doctor apparently doesn’t open up girls’ career dreams anymore than Barbie as a fashionista.

So aside from pointing out yet another depressing way that girls get sexualized and limited by toys, what do these findings tell us? Well, the good news here is that we now know that not playing with Barbie is better for girls. This points to the possibility that other kinds of toys might have the potential to be really positive for girls. The issue is that so many “girl” toys are built around appearance whereas “boy” toys tend to be about action and strength and much less so about the attractiveness of toys (google search ‘toys for girls’ and ‘toys for boys’ and you’ll see what I mean). But if there were more toy options like Mrs. Potato Head for girls that centered on the ‘doing’ of play without the distraction of thinking about how attractive our toys are, this might allow more room for imagination about what we want to achieve and do rather than what we want to look like. The SPARK petition of LEGO to create more toys for girls was a great start to building a world of play that encourages girls’ achievement rather than constricts it. Now, how to get rid of Barbie is a scheme we can come up with another day…

I loved playing with my Barbie (and wanted to be her) as a kid but when I got older I realized I had a lot more to offer the world than just my looks. Maybe it’s partly because of Barbie that now I am so interested in understanding how sexualization impacts girls’ lives and dreams (although I am certainly not going to be thanking her any time soon). I do know that if and when I have a daughter, there will be no Barbie dolls in the house, but I also know that Barbie isn’t the only culprit. If we really want to empower girls to dream big and have the power to be whoever they want to be (whether that is a doctor or fashionista), then we have to dismantle a whole lot of oppressive systems. But hey, our revolution can start out with one toy at a time.



[1] Rogers, A. (1999). Barbie culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

[2] Sherman, A. M., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2014). “Boys can be anything”: Effect of Barbie play on girls’ career cognitions. Sex Roles, 70, 195-208. doi: 10.1007/s11199-014-0347-y