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For Sale: Wholesomeness
Dolls, purses, perfumes now are marketed with extra added values, like self-esteem and sharing. But are girls really just learning to be buyers?

Lini S. Kadaba
Philadelphia Inquirer
January 21, 2009

Wholesome values are enveloped in rhinestones and BFF clubs, sweet smells and individuality, party dresses and philanthropy.

That's the take-home message from a shopping cartful of new toys and products for girls - pocketbooks, perfumes and dolls, among others - that promise to nurture self-esteem and other positive qualities.

Many parents welcome the alternatives to highly sexualized merchandise (think Bratz) hawked by teen celebrities who sometimes fail to model the best behavior (think Britney, Lindsay).

Critics of a consumerism-driven culture, however, take issue with marketers who, they say, have co-opted empowerment and individuality, with a dash of multiculturalism, as tools of trade.

"It's gotten more sophisticated," said Lyn Mikel Brown, coauthor of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers' Schemes.

Take the Rebelle Friendship Bags, which recently hit select stores. Rhinestones and silver heart appliques decorate the brightly colored handbags, which unzip into two smaller purses. One is to keep, and one is to trade with a best friend. A companion Web site plans to offer a Best Friends Forever club and community activism opportunities.

"It's teaching girls to share," said Daisy Cook, who designed the $35 to $40 accessory and owns the company of the same name. "We're sort of rebelling against the bimbocracy."

Likewise, C-Thru fragrances, which debuted a couple of months ago, come in three scents ($17 to $25 depending on size) to enable girls and young women to "discover their own personalities," said product pitchwoman Dawn Russell, a cancer survivor.

"It's about what's inside that matters, not all the external baggage," said Russell, who will share her story of overcoming adversity while doing a product tour on behalf of C-Thru.

Even Groovy Girls dolls, that decade-old funky alternative to Barbie and the Bratz for the preschool and older set, expanded its franchise - and hammered the values message - this holiday season when it introduced the Groovy Girls RSVP collection ($12 to $20 each), as in Respect, Self-Expression, Values and Play.

Web content accessed with a code that comes with the doll has activities (design your own outfits, for instance) that let users accumulate points. When you accumulate enough points, the makers of Groovy Girls will give a donation to Toys for Tots.

Arete Passas, president and chief executive officer of Groovy Girls-maker Manhattan Toy, said the dolls promote charitable giving, positive images that are not sexualized, and creative play. "Those are core principles moms are looking for in raising a child," she said.

But can a young girl really learn values through carrying a handbag? Can confidence be bottled? Can a doll foster a philanthropic spirit?

Companies allow that it's not a literal link, but argue that products can reinforce positive principles.

For instance, C-Thru spokeswoman Russell is able to link the perfumes to empowerment by connecting to her own experiences.

"By sharing her story of overcoming adversity, she is teaching [young women] tools they need to fight their own struggles - social, physical and emotional - so they can really find strength in themselves, which is what C-Thru is all about," according to a news release from Aramis and Designer Fragrances. "To have these young women think about her when they put on their fragrance every single day is reinforcing a powerful message."

Many parents of daughters applaud options in a marketplace stingy with age-appropriate choices.

"My daughter picked the bag because it's beautiful," said Christine Thomas, 43, of Aldan, who bought a Rebelle purse for 7-year-old Cartier at FAO Schwarz in Manhattan.

Cartier shared the purse with her best friend Daisy Daly, 9, a neighbor. "We thought that was really cool," Daisy said, and Cartier agreed.

Thomas and Liza Daly, 42, Daisy's mother, both said they were impressed with the message of friendship and the Web site that will soon enable girls to create fashions and chat with "big sister" characters known as the Rebelle Girls. The Girls advocate for animal rights, play sports, and help little sisters handle issues such as divorcing parents. As Cook said, the virtual creations will stay "forever young . . . and forever wholesome."

It's the real-world models such as Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana who grow up and make choices that Thomas doesn't necessarily want to explain to her daughter.

In fact, the mother liked what she saw so much that she decided to sell the purses and backpacks at her business, Reflections Hair Salon in Glenolden.

"I'm so tired of this whorey stuff," Thomas said. "It's really hard, clotheswise, toywise. So many things are too old for her age. It's pushing girls to grow up before their time."

While experts on commercialism and children sympathize with parents trying to navigate girlhood in a culture that often promotes poor role models, they view the new wave of values-laden stuff with skepticism.

"It's nice these products are an alternative to highly sexualized and anorexic images for girls," said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which is affiliated with Harvard University.

"But they're still products. What these companies are doing is convincing girls to buy products in the name of positive values, and in fact, girls learn those positive values outside of the marketplace, not in the marketplace," said the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.

Brown, the Packaging Girlhood coauthor, said marketing campaigns that stress self-esteem or freedom of choice might actually hinder those very qualities.

"It becomes the look of power rather than real empowerment," she said.

That doesn't mean parents should shun these products.

"In the end, there's usually not one thing that affects self-esteem," said Adrienne Ressler, national training director for the Renfrew Center Foundation, based in Philadelphia, whose mission is prevention of eating disorders.

Instead, a host of factors play a part, she said. "What is the culture that the child is immersed in? What are the images she's hearing about in her family . . . her peer group, in the media? Most toys can be OK, if they're used with guidance and explanation."

Brown, too, emphasized the need for conversations between parents and their daughters.

"It's not saying no to that cute purse," she said. "It's about breaking apart the notion that you can buy self-esteem."





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