When Tracey Spicer was at a family barbecue a few weeks back, she no doubt felt it was the safest of environments. In a world where our children are so susceptible to media messages and are so connected to ideas and advertising that seeks to drag their confidence down, this, it would seem, was not the kind of environment that could damage her children in any way, shape or form.
However, in a column for Fairfax on Sunday, she wrote that the barbecue gave way to a conversation that made her “jaw drop to the floor”, and had her suddenly furious at the way in which the men around her had no issue so blatantly sexualising her daughter.
In recounting the story, Spicer wrote that a man she had known for many years approached her and her 10-year-old daughter with his “eyes wide”. She writes:
“My, how you’ve grown. You’re a pretty little thing. All the men will be looking at you instead of your mother!”
The earth stops spinning. Time stands still. Gracie stares at the ground, no doubt hoping it swallows her.
I want to shout and scream and shake him: HOW DARE YOU SEXUALISE MY DAUGHTER?
Whatever the intentions, and as Spicer touches on, no 10-year-old enjoys their appearance being commented on. And despite the distressing nature of Spicer’s tale, it’s not uncommon.
Just last week, I was buying take away from a local restaurant. As I stood in that awkward no-mans-land of the restaurant, waiting for my food and creating quite the traffic jam behind me, I watched on as two young girls left the restaurant, trailing their family. As they walked out, the owner of the restaurant tapped the older girl on the shoulder. She was probably about 10, too. He was pushing 50.
Should we let our young daughters get manicures? Post continues after audio.
“Remember,” he said, “you grow a bit more and you call me.” The young girl looked at her sister, rolled her eyes, and scurried along. His defence, of course, would be that it was all in good fun. It was a compliment, after all.
I was alarmed but not surprised. I had been 10 once. I remembered the horrific embarrassment of having your appearance brought into focus. My cheeks would flush. I, too, would hope to disappear.
But in a world where every facet of pop culture makes its cash from the sexualisation of young girls (sex sells, have you heard?) are we surprised by Spicer’s tale? Are we surprised by the man at the restaurant?
I would think not. Inevitable doesn’t mean accepted, though. Nor does it mean it’s right.
An American Psychological Association report has found that girls who are exposed to sexual messages in popular culture are more likely to have low self-esteem and depression, and suffer from eating disorders.
Melbourne uni researchers
Commenting on someone's appearance so young isn't a compliment. It's wholly damaging.
Even model and actress Emily Ratajkowski has touched on this idea, too. Writing for Lenny Letter in an essay aptly titled 'Baby Woman,' Ratajkowski recalls how confusing her childhood was when puberty hit her at such a young age. Her own innocent identity totally at odds with the one others projected on her, she wrote. And many felt they needed to "protect" her because of it.
"An older family friend took me aside, separate from the rest of the party: "You need to hide out, a girl like you, keep a low profile." Whatever that meant. I truly believe he felt he was being protective, helpful even."
Ratajkowski clearly isn't alone. Spicer's story isn't an anomaly. The young girl from the restaurant has probably seen this all before.
Pop culture's a hard fish to fry. The people around us aren't as much. They're accessible, they can listen, and they do damage too.
That's why Spicer telling her story and calling it out is so crucially important.