Why It Matters Whether a Toy is Thin and Sexy (Or Not)

So the ‘thinner-and-sexier evolution’ series is kind of winding down, as there are (thankfully, I think?) only a limited number of consumer products that have been around long enough so as to be able to undergo some kind of thin-and-sexy transformation. Besides, at this point, it’s kind of ‘clicked there, browsed that,’ you know? Especially since every toy’s/image’s transformation does some basic variation on the theme of “thin down and sex up.”

Call it the Barbiefication of toys for girls.

Or, you could call it what the American Psychological Association does, which is sexualization. Sexualization, as opposed to healthy sexuality, is defined (by the APA) as any one of the following:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. (especially relevant to 

As usual, a picture makes things clearer: what if all the Avengers posed like the female one?

This brilliant artistic experiment demonstrates just how pervasive images portraying females as sexually available objects are, such that when we see men posing in ways that signify sexual objectification, it looks strange.

The APA task force writes:

“In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.

Sexualization is damaging, really damaging, in a number of ways. Namely, it

  • has been repeatedly shown to detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities such as mathematical computations or logical reasoning
  • has repeatedly been linked with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood
  • has negative consequences in terms of girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality.
  • makes it difficult for some men to find an “acceptable” partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner as a result of over exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness.

The APA has a number of recommendations–you can read the report here if you like–but one thing they mention kind of stuck with me in relationship to what churches can do/have done:

“encourage girls to become activists who speak out and develop their own alternatives.”

As I’ve said before, many of the messages given to young girls in evangelical churches–at least in my experience–encourage passivity, whether muted or outright. So Ruth, in the Old Testament, is not a story about a courageous woman sticking by her destitute mother-in-law, working hard, and making things happen so that “Mara” (bitterness) can be “Naomi” (pleasantness) again, it’s about Ruth’s wonderful feminine qualities in waiting for Boaz’s male leadership.

“someday my Prince will come”

(I’ve seen this in a number of places–namely, in this book, this one, and this one, and in the now-defunct Brio magazine from Focus on the Family.)

While these discourses emphasize ‘purity’ and, in so doing, do something to resist sexualization, I worry that the fear some evangelicals have of being “too feminist” actually means that they acquiesce to the broader culture’s objectification of women by insisting on a female passivity that’s

JUST. NOT. THERE. in the Bible they claim to revere.

Ruth’s a kick-butt type of lady. So’s Jael, so’s Rahab, so’s Tamar, so’s Deborah, so are number of others.

So here are my questions:

  • have evangelical churches offered a coherent alternative to the objectification of girls prevalent in American culture?
  • (because even where they’ve resisted sexualization–at least, sexualization outside marriage–they’ve emphasized passivity in that sphere?)
  • Is it possible to do so while continuing (as some do) to insist upon women’s subordination to men in the church?
  • what can churches, families, and individuals do to resist messages of sexualization?

The Evolution of Polly Pocket

This series is seriously wringing some serious handwringing out of me.

To be clear, not once have I created a post by first finding the evidence of evolution and then posting it.

It’s been more like this:

  • “gee, I remember Candy Land looking a lot different…let me get out my old board.”
  • “Oh, hey, Strawberry Shortcake, I love her! Is she still a thing?”
  • “Polly Pocket! Is she still around?”

Indeed, she is, but like the rest of the artifacts in this series (even the ponies, for cryin’ out loud) she has gotten taller, thinner, and sexier.

I had a 1989 Polly Pocket–Polly’s Townhome, I do believe–and I loved it. How fun to have a tiny dollhouse you could bring with you anywhere!

The original (circa 1989) Polly Pocket figures looked like this:

1989 Polly Pocket figures

Let’s just run through the years quickly, shall we?

1990 figures

Note 2 things about these early figures:

1. essentially childlike

2. not sexy

1990 figures with “pocket”
1994; a wee bit taller, maybe?
1995; wee bit sexier.
1998, the pivotal year, methinks
1998, sexier, less childlike–but still not grownup or super-skinny
2001, and it becomes about dressing her up instead of playing dollhouse…
2002, ditto, but sexier
2003, Polly goes on a crash diet.
2004. At least they’re portraying some eating.
2006; Polly and her anorexic friends aboard a floating paradise-of-consumption.
2007. Bare bottomed anorexic Polly!

And the contemporary Pollys:

Cute matching wellie/umbrella dollies
skinny bathing beauty Polly. Note the huge eyes!
Just to compare, these are the figures I played with (around 1989-90)

I’m finding this trend disturbing, to say the least.

How could playing with increasingly Barbiefied dolls NOT exacerbate young girls’ body dissatisfaction? How could the movement of toys toward ever sexier versions of themselves NOT contribute to the premature sexualization of young girls?

Maybe not for every child that plays with them, but certainly for some.

Further, what does it mean that toys (esp. toys that attempt to represent some kind of human figure) are trending toward consumptive activities in the way they’re packaged and presented? In other words, my Polly Pocket lived in a little apartment. She could have friends over and play house, go to work, hang out with her cat. Today’s Polly Pocket can change her clothes, ride on her luxury jet and go on a cruise. There’s something about her (not just her, but many toys) that celebrates consumption in a way that I’m not sure is pretty sure isn’t healthy.

What do you think? Do you find this trend disturbing? Am I being quixotic?

{You may enjoy the other posts in this series: The Evolution of Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, Candy Land, Morton Salt & Coca-Cola, and G.I. Joe}