Alice Armstrong: After all these years, girls still get wrong message

Published Monday, February 25, 2008

In 1963, Gloria Steinem galvanized the women’s movement when she wrote an article about the exploitation of women who worked as Playboy bunnies. Ironically, the granddaughters of Steinem’s contemporaries now proudly carry purses, wear tops and bottoms and adorn their cars with bumper stickers bearing the bunny logo.

Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp, in a 2003 story about the bunny craze, talked to teenage girls who believed Playboy clothes were “classier” than many other brands of attire. If the bunny logo is “classy,” what is lowbrow fashion these days? And what does this affinity for a symbol of the objectification of women say about our culture and what it teaches our girls?

Today’s high school hallways are crowded with adolescent girls who think their sexuality is their saving grace. Meanwhile, feminism has become a dirty word and the Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1923, still sits on the shelf accumulating dust while waiting to be ratified by three more states so that it can become the 28th amendment to the Constitution.

Sure, women have made progress over the last 50 years. Steinem pointed that out in 2006. “In 1972, only 10 percent of doctors were women.  That number has grown to almost 30 percent. Four percent of lawyers back then also have grown to 30 percent. As for engineers, a fraction of 1 percent has become more than 14 percent,” says Steinem. However, women in these professions do not earn as much money as their male counterparts.

“Behind the Pay Gap,” a 2007 report released by American Association of University Women, states, “One year out of college, women working full time earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn. Ten years after graduation, women fall farther behind, earning only 69 percent as much as men earn. Controlling for hours, occupation, parenthood, and other factors normally associated with pay, college-educated women still earn less than their male peers earn.”

Most high school girls aren’t aware of these statistics for the magazines they read don’t contain much substance. Article titles on the covers of March 2008 editions of some of the most popular teenage girls’ magazines prove this point.

Cosmo Girl: Prom Issue advertises, “The Best Dress for Your Body”; “Sexy Gowns You’ll Look Amazing In”; and “Sculpt Your Hottest Body in 4 Weeks.” Seventeen tops Cosmo Girl by promising “Your Best Prom Body (in just 2 moves).” These rags, filled with beauty tips and fashion trends, reinforce the idea in their readers that looks and boys are all that matter.

It doesn’t get any better as girls turn into women either. The cover stories on this month’s issue of Marie Claire include, “The New Beauty Pill”; “Boob-Job Envy”; and “Bed Behavior: He Wants You to Do What?” Cosmo pushes the line of decency even further with “21 Naughty Sex Tips: Tonight Treat Him to Some Boundary-Pushing Sex That Good Girls Only Dream Of.”

The cover of Vogue is tamer than Marie Claire and Cosmo but still reinforces the old message about a woman’s value being in her appearance with “The Pretty Gene: When Beauty Skips a Generation.”

Back to teen magazines. Those targeted at girls are very different than those written for boys. Girls’ Life and Boys’ Life typify this difference.

On the cover of Girls’ Life is an attractive adolescent girl doing nothing but smiling into the camera. On the cover of Boys’ Life a young man is engaged in rock climbing. The cover stories on Girls’ Life read, “Lovescope! Get Your Crushcast”; and “Quiz! What’s Your Flirt Style?” The stories gracing the front of Boys’ Life read, “Hiking through History” and “A Day in the Life,” a story about what life is like on the front lines of the war.

The message here is clear. A girl’s job is to look pretty; a boy’s job is to experience life.

The way Barnes and Noble arranges its magazines sends this same message. The section labeled “Women’s Interest” includes magazines about fashion, fitness, hairstyles, weddings and housekeeping. The section labeled “Men’s Interest” contains magazines about fashion, fitness, tattoos, farming, railroads, boating, flying, golf, nature, watches and photography. Some soft pornography can be found there as well.

Still, we wonder why more girls than ever suffer from anorexia, bulimia, cutting disorders and depression. The answer to that question is all around us. The solution to the problem is a bit more elusive.
A step in the right direction would be for every parent and educator to read “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” The author, Mary Pipher, Ph.D., published this important book in 1994. Though it is 14 years old now, it’s still as relevant today as it was at publication.

In the preface, Pipher writes, “We can strengthen girls … We can support and guide them. But most important, we can change our culture. We can work together to build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized and more growth-producing. Our daughters deserve a society in which all their gifts can be developed and appreciated.”

We women have proved that we can change our culture. In the 1960s the burning of the bra symbolized this change. In 2008, let’s engage in a new symbolic burning — let’s burn the bunny.

Alice Armstrong, a freelance writer and copy editor, taught high school English for 18 years. She can be reached at