Peggy Orenstein on Girls Trying to Look Grown Up and Adults Trying to Look Girlish

From the earliest of ages, girls are now being targeted to become overly focused on their bodies and to think of themselves as sexy.
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The way I see it, every generation of girls is taught to find value and identity through the way we look and the way we impress others. That certainly was the case when I was growing up. Thankfully, when I came of age in the 1960's and 70's the fashion of the day wasn't marked by ultra-thinness and ultra-sexiness. In today's world, according to Peggy Orenstein, contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, "girls are trying to look like grownups and adults are trying to look girlish." Clearly something is out of whack.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Peggy speak at the 21st Annual Renfrew Center Conference. This conference has always been a source of inspiration and empowerment to me and many others psychotherapists throughout the country. Beyond learning about the healing power in the therapist-client relationship, it is here that therapists empower each other to grow, expand conceptual frameworks and discover what really makes a difference in helping women heal and find their way to emotional and physical health. If you aren't a psychotherapist this may seem like a no-brainer, something that one would expect to happen all the time in lots of different venues -- but believe me, it doesn't. It was over a series of years that the speakers at this annual conference gave me the strength and resolve to speak my truth and trust my instincts as a therapist.

This year it was Orenstein who spoke the truth about the new pink and pretty "girlie-girl" culture encouraging girls from infancy onward to believe that how they look matters more than who they are. Describing the upsurge in princess products, the rise in cosmetic use among 6-8 year olds and the ways regular girls present themselves on social media sites, Peggy made it clear that "something is quite wrong in America" when marketers are directing our internal messaging. She cited a Stanford study that shows how activating a young woman's awareness of her body negatively influences her aspirations and sense of confidence, and mentioned findings from a Princeton study indicating that "young women holding leadership positions not only feel the need to be perfect, but to look hot at the same time." As if it isn't hard enough to find our voice and use it, now we have this mandate to be "hot" at the same time.

Marketers will stop at nothing to boost their profits. They seemingly have no moral code. Ten years ago our concern focused on tweens, but evidently that is old school. From the earliest of ages, girls are now being targeted to become overly focused on their bodies, beauty and to think of themselves as sexy. Mothers and fathers beware -- your kids need you to raise your awareness and protect them from the pernicious messages directed at them.

"Once girls learn the performance of sexiness, they never learn the embodiment of their experience," says the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: What the New Culture of Girlhood Means to Girls & the Adults Who Care About Them. "Being against sexualization of girls is being pro-sex since sexuality comes from within and early sexualization of girls inhibits the development of becoming internally connected. Learning to understand your desire," Orenstein says, is distinctly different from "learning that you are desirable." Girls are being sold on messages to "be sexy," "be a hotty,""be devilish," years before they have any clue as to how they impact their developing self-image and on the intimate relationships they will eventually want. They are being taught that in building their "brand" they will get the most positive feedback if they are sexy "as long as they don't go too far," warns Orenstein. Sounds to me like a new strategy for promoting misogyny.

This mother of two grown daughters knows that parents of young children are facing an uphill battle. It requires active parenting to teach daughters that "looking good is not a feeling" and that appearance alone doesn't generate self-confidence. It requires active conversation with other adults to heighten awareness of how kids are being manipulated to feel inadequate and obsessed with appearance. And it requires active limit setting to avoid stepping into the traps that ultimately disempower girls as they grow into adult women. Toward these ends, Orenstein suggests a few websites:,,,, & She reminds all of us that "we need to produce culture" not just passively absorb the one thrust upon us."

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