Plastic surgery apps for little girls? Horrendous, but no longer surprising
We are so accustomed to a world of outrageous and damaging sexism that is no wonder some people have designed games telling children they are fat and in need of surgical improvement. The apps that suggested to little girls that their bodies might not be good enough.
Generally, we are very accepting of the world around us. We take it for granted, accept that it’s normal, and see it as “just the way things are”. But every now and then, something comes along that is so awful, so appalling, that it shakes us out of our normalised half-sleep and lets us realise just how truly, shockingly bad the situation has become.
This week, the plastic surgery apps available to little girls to download from iTunes and Google Play provided just such a wakeup call. The apps that suggested to little girls that their bodies might not be good enough, that being thin was all that mattered, and that being fat would make you unhappy and disgusting. The apps that sent the message to little girls as young as nine that women are primarily judged on what they look like. That seemed to tell them the way to make themselves happy and beautiful again was simple – they just needed to let somebody cut away at them with a knife until all the parts that were unacceptable to society had been sucked out or lopped clean off.
The apps have been withdrawn, but this isn’t a victory. It’s a vital opportunity to stop and ask how this could have happened. What led up to this moment? How have we reached a point at which games developers would actually create an app that says these bizarre, painful, damaging things to our little girls and would expect it to be successful? What really matters isn’t the apps at all, but the social and cultural context that enabled them to come into being in the first place.
Because those apps would never have been conceived, never even have been dreamed of, in a world in which we weren’t sending the message, over and over again, to women and girls, that their bodies are the sum total of their value, and that they must conform to an incredibly narrow ideal of beauty or else be worthless.
You can see it in the way that the near-naked body of a white, thin, large-breasted woman is used to advertise a bicycle, a burger, or a budget airline. In the way that any woman, whether she is a politician or a murder victim, is portrayed and judged first and foremost as a body. Or in the recent UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image report that told us “girls as young as five years old are worried about the way they look and their size”. And “one in four seven-year old girls have tried to lose weight at least once”.
You see it when the UK Daily Mail writes an article specifically describing a woman’s “worrying” body insecurities, quotes her explicitly saying that those insecurities were triggered by press photographs, and then illustrates that same article with six near-identical photographs of her on the way to the gym, including one taken from behind, under the utterly non-newsworthy headline: “Back on the treadmill: Lauren Goodger shows off her curves in tight Lycra as she heads to the gym for first time this year”. You see it in the websites that teach little girls how to pinch themselves to get rid of cellulite, or show them how to plaster a cartoon waif in makeup so a boy will like her. You see it in the fact that one newspaper still, in 2014 finds merit in the idea of plastering a picture of a woman’s breasts across its pages nearly every day.
You see it in the “lad” websites that dehumanise a woman by giving her a mark out of ten, based on her looks, so that she becomes a number rather than a person. “Chatting up a solid 7/10” … “sitting opposite two girls (7 & 6/10)” … “Smashing a 7/10 girl from Kuwait last night.”
You see it, unmistakeably, in the real women’s stories that flood in to the Everyday Sexism Project every week, and I hear it in the stories of the girls and young women I meet at schools and universities. The women whose bottoms are commented on and fondled in the workplace and the schoolgirls who have learned to expect shouts from cars about their breasts as they walk to school. The 14-year-old girl who told me that taking diet pills was the only way to get a really good thigh gap. The beautiful 17-year-old who told me she would never bare her arms because she’s so ashamed of them. The 15-year-old who wrote: “I watch my mum tear herself apart every day because her boobs are sagging and her skin is wrinkling. She feels like she is ugly even though she is amazing, but then I feel like I can’t judge because I do the same to myself.” And the older women who use the same word, over and over again, in their project entries… “invisible”.
People reacted with shock to those plastic surgery apps, but they should never really have come as a surprise. We have become so used to what is happening to girls and women all around us that we have stopped noticing.