‘Dance like nobody’s watching’ is an injunction to rediscover child-like freedom and joy; there is innocence in not being aware of what others think. But, imperceptibly, children become conscious of what other people think of them – first their family. Then, everybody else; it’s inevitable – we have to live in society, whether we are Amish or Zoroastrian.
Sometimes, when I am worrying about my daughter, I envy the Amish their seclusion. The Western media chokes innocence by making children painfully aware of their appearance. Children are swamped with images constantly; and images of femininity tend to conform to a narrow type – thin bodies, revealing clothes, manicured hair and makeup, (probably airbrushed). Girls’ clothing and toys reinforce the effect of these images – you can buy a bra for your five year old and Unicorn Sparkle eye-shadow. You might allow yourself to fall for the fake innocence of such products, (but I don’t think any of us seriously believe that unicorns wear eye-shadow, we’re not that stupid). And what is innocent about a child wearing a bra when they have no breasts, whilst painting their face to resemble the adult sexual women they see on TV?
The idea of the perfect body is constantly in front of our eyes and our children’s eyes. Susie Orbach describes this situation clearly –
‘The supersized, digitally enhanced images of airbrushed and Photoshopped individuals which penetrate into our public and private spaces are reshaping the way we regard our bodies. The visual Muzak, omnipresent in lifts and queues, projected everywhere to keep our eyes busy, makes us super-aware and hyper-critical of our own bodies. This has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility,’ (Bodies, 2009, p. 136).
Orbach argues that, from a very young age, we are made to feel that we have to change our bodies, to work on them. She says that the constant struggle to change the body, rather than accept it, causes people (especially girls and women) to become alienated from their natural sensations, to struggle and to feel permanent unhappiness about their own bodies.
Ariana Grande is a star whom children love. She has been praised, too, for her ‘feminist convictions’, (Guardian, May 2017). But, probably under pressure from business types around her, she also sells her image, which is thin, made-up and sexual. You only have to watch a little bit of Dangerous Woman to see this, (‘Something ’bout you makes me wanna do things that I shouldn’t’). It disturbs me beyond words that it is acceptable for little girls to call themselves Arianators. It is hypocrisy for Grande to write on Instagram encouraging her fans not to cover their faces in photographs, “You show me so much unconditional love all the time no matter what tf I look like. You deserve to show yourselves that same kindness. ” (Teen Vogue, March 2018) As if her appearance is irrelevant! Her whole Instagram page is based on pictures of her looking exactly the way that girls are taught is beautiful – a look that is impossible for most girls to achieve.
I want my six year old to feel comfortable in her body; I don’t want her to see pop videos and emulate this impossible physical ideal. I have witnessed how dramatic the effect of MTV can be. I used to work in a boarding school where I helped in a boarding house. MTV played constantly in the common room and, after one year there, new girls (aged eleven and twelve) had started asking their parents for bikini waxes. No more dancing like no one is watching for them!
How can we protect children from it? My daughter already refuses to wear a pretty denim sunhat because someone in her class made fun of it, (the fashion in her class is American-style baseball caps with Disney characters). She has already been told by another child that her freckles are ugly. To me this feels like an augur of what is to come, and what she might already be absorbing without saying anything.
The energy unleashed by the #MeToo campaign could be harnessed. Women could use this moment to challenge the narrow, unnatural and harmful idea that we are sold of how women, and men, should look. The problem for individual adults, however, is that we have absorbed these images and judge ourselves accordingly.
It’s time for #IlookOK.