Being a kid is hard for a number of reasons, and for young girls, the struggle is often amplified by issues of self-worth, intelligence, and confidence. Smart girls have always been overshadowed by women who focus on their looks instead of their brains. But why?
Encouraging children to ask questions, follow their interests, and challenge the status quo should be at the forefront of education and parenting. Sure, the media will get in the way when it chooses to feature hot bods instead of brains, but if we work hard enough, we can disrupt this trend and start a brand new one of our own!
As you’ve probably heard, Barbie has finally jumped on the girl-power bandwagon. After all these years, she is finally going to exhibit real-girl qualities such as brains and brawn, allowing her superficial qualities to take the sidelines for once. Shockingly, Barbie might finally be a role model after all – and with the burgeoning market for smart-girl toys and games, Mattel made it just in time.
The smart-girl struggle
Several years ago, I entered teacher’s college full of hope, dreams and a burning desire to help teenagers discover their inner mathematicians. I walked into the head of the math department’s office on my first teaching day, excited to change the world. The first words that came of his mouth? “What’s a pretty girl like you doing being a math teacher?”
And that was that. I left shortly after and headed back to university to study math education and feminist studies, more determined than ever to figure out what it was that led to statements like that being made on the regular.
My adventure led me many places, but to me, the most interesting was the exploration of the influence of media messaging on the self-confidence and aspirations of young girls.
Encouraging young women to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is a pretty hot topic right now. Everyone’s talking about role models, making math and science interesting for girls, and a variety of ways to engage women. But what about the media? What about the fact that most of us probably can’t name a single female ‘celebrity’ who isn’t famous because she’s attractive, not intelligent?
Barbie gets brains
For years, the research has been pretty depressing. Society changes slowly, and media representations of women are no exception. Many of us feel that we are powerless to change the ways media affects our children – after all, ‘they’ are so big, and we are so so small.
Well, times are changing – for the better. Let’s look at Barbie: A doll with unrealistic proportions, often blamed for the dysmorphic ideals of young girls. For years, Mattel has been petitioned and scorned for its promotion of unrealistic beauty standards, specifically targeted to young girls. Oh, and let’s not forget the Barbie that proclaimed “Math class is tough” back in the ’80s.
For years, Mattel hasn’t cared and has refused to change its promoted values and ideals. Just like many companies, they were focused on their bottom line. But wait – something has happened – and it’s all because of you. After years of pleading, begging, threatening, and lobbying – Barbie has caved. After all, it’s a consumer’s market and if enough people demand, Mattel must supply.
The new Barbie commercial came out in late 2015 and our wishes have come true – intelligence and education are at the forefront of the new Barbie campaign! To most, the commercial isn’t a big deal. To me (and to all girls who grew up wondering why they didn’t look like Barbie) it is, and should be, a huge deal.
Hundreds of thousands of girls own at least one Barbie doll. The idea that kids can start gaining positive messaging from their fashion-clad dolls is a huge step, but there’s something more important than even that: the proof that we can make a difference in huge corporations responsible for influencing our children.
We are the reason that Mattel finally made this commercial, changed their core values, took this stance. It is the culmination of public interest and upheaval that forced Mattel to reevaluate their positioning in the market. If Barbie can become smart, who else and WHAT else can follow suit, and what does this mean for our children?
4 ways to promote intelligence in your child
1. Say no to casual sexism
Studies have shown that your attitude towards math has a huge effect on the way your child feels about math – and that goes for gendered beliefs! Stay away from making jokes about how women are bad at math, and if you hear this type of humour, make a point not to laugh, and instead point out how harmful gendered stereotypes are.
2. Promote beauty and brains with the toys you buy
3. Choose summer camps and after school programs that promote learning
When we think of extra-curriculars, we often go for the popular ones: swimming, hockey, ballet… but there are also a ton of ways to engage your child outside of the classroom when it comes to STEM! Search your area for robotics camps, coding workshops, and science classes. Positioning STEM as an extra-curricular helps your child see science and math as fun instead of simply mandatory!
4. Get smart with your SWAG
Just remember, women make up half the world’s population. If we encourage girls to thrive academically, giving them equal opportunities, the world as we know it will change, for the better. Imagine the possibilities!
Vanessa Vakharia is the founder and director of The Math Guru, a boutique math & science tutoring studio in Toronto. She has her Masters of Math Education and specializes on teenage engagement in mathematics education. Socials: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat: @themathguru
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