Skip to main content
Read page text

Abercrombie and Fitch has marketed ‘push-up’ bikini tops to girls as young as seven journalists insist on elevating those studies that ignore the “drip, drip, drip” of gender stereotypes.’ The biological determinists send a clear message: there are essential differences between men and women, which cannot be overridden; inequality is inevitable.

At the same time, there is greater pressure than ever to conform to beauty ideals. A bugbear of feminists since Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, these images have become ever more powerful – narrower and increasingly defined by the sex industry.4

No girl is too young to be sexy. US clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch has come in for criticism for marketing ‘push-up’ bikini tops to girls as young as seven. By way of concession, they rebranded them ‘padded’. (This is a fi rm that sells thongs printed with words like ‘eye candy’ and ‘wink wink’ in their kids’ range)

Paradoxically, ‘looking good’ is marketed to girls as the path to self-expression and independence – ideals that feminists taught us, but without consumerism and selfobjectification in mind. (See ‘When rights go wrong’, page 22). The obsession with looks as a marker of success takes its toll on self-esteem, with around 40 per cent of British girls aged 10 and 11 wanting to lose weight.5

In a globalized world, body image quickly becomes every body’s problem. The same anxiety is reflected throughout Canada, Australia and the US, while a study of girls exposed to Western ads in Fiji showed they were quick to adopt the punishing culture of physical vigilance, becoming 60 per cent more likely to develop eating disorders.6 The attractive, pale, high-achieving woman is also a powerful brand across Africa, China and India. Old problems, new twist Meanwhile, new technology has propelled pornography – long a source of division in the feminist movement – into new spheres, one of which is the playground. I remember the frisson at primary school when kids passed round thumbnail images of women in bras, ripped out of catalogues. Now the material is likely to be a little more explicit.

‘Boys as young as 11 are watching porn and learning that sex is something you “do to” a girl,’ explains Sophie Bennett, who runs UK Feminista’s schools programme.

Technology is bringing new ways of mediating sexual pressure. A study into sexting (sending explicit pictures by mobile phone) by the National Society for the Protection of Children recorded how boys – under pressure to brag and compete – coerce girls to send pictures of their breasts and other body parts. Once these images exist, sexting quickly turns into ‘shaming’ and sexual harassment.

Technology has also carried porn deep into rural India. New Internationalist writer Mari Marcel Thekaekara says 10-year-old boys are downloading violent images on to their mobiles for as little as two rupees (4 US cents). She worries that this has led to sadistic rapes of explains the co-founder of Play Unlimited. The Australian group’s initial campaign saw Toys ‘R’ Us drop the boys and girls categories on their website in a matter of weeks, and quickly broadened to target all Australian toy retailers. ‘Change in this area is long overdue,’ says Hughes, adding that they have received overwhelming support.

The group is part of an international movement, in contact with Britain’s Let Toys be Toys, Let Books be Books, A Mighty Girl (US) and others. It is fuelled by books such as Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella ate my daughter (2011) and Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010) by Cordelia Fine.

Hughes has this advice for parents keen not to limit their children’s choices in later life: ‘Model your belief in equality in your home life, challenge gender stereotypes and point out those people who defy them.’

BUDDHIST FEMINISM In Thailand, being born female is seen as bad karma. Some 95 per cent of Thais follow a version of Theravada Buddhism which holds that women cannot attain enlightenment. Female monastics are considered lay nuns – deemed inferior and confined to a life of cooking and cleaning for monks.

i t r a k a r / R e u t e r s l C h

G o p a

A group of courageous women is quietly trying to change this. They are led by the trailblazing Venerable Dhammananda who in 2003 became the first Thai woman to become a Bhikkhuni – or fully ordained Theravada Buddhist nun – at a ceremony in Sri Lanka.

‘It is very clear in Buddhist texts that enlightenment is for everyone,’ she says.

‘Some people say, “how dare you wear the robe?” They say women will “soil” the robe with their menstruation. But I tell them: “if you soil the robe you just go and wash it.” When you face a situation like this you have to be able to laugh.’

Meanwhile, nuns from the Drukpa Buddhist sect in Nepal are finding empowerment through martial arts. The world’s first order of kung fu nuns, they also lead prayers, drive jeeps and are schooled in business. Research by Hanna Hindstrom

N e w I n t e r n at i o n a l i s t ● july/au gust 2 014 ● 15

My Bookmarks

Skip to main content