Balancing Act

Camp teaches girls the ropes on manipulative advertising

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(Sheri Blaney, Getty Images)

A very cool thing is happening this week at a summer camp in Charlotte, N.C., where 5th and 6th grade girls gather to learn "social leadership" skills.

"We talk about how to be a leader in your social space," says educator and author Michelle Icard, who founded Athena's Path camp a decade ago. "Since middle school throws so many curveballs at kids, we identify leadership moments and how to handle them."

Icard kicked off camp Monday by tackling advertising: a two-headed beast that tries to strip girls of their confidence and then lunges for their cash.

It's tough to be a leader when you're broke and panicked about your thighs.

"We talk about the fact that ads cost a ton of money to make, and if you're only going to look at one for three seconds, advertisers need to have some tricks up their sleeve," Icard told me. "Then I pull out my stack of ads."

Print ads, mostly, which Icard has collected from various magazines and the Gender Ads Project, a website that collects and dissects the messages behind advertising images.

"We discuss normalization, when an advertiser tells a girl something is not normal about her — bad skin, fat thighs — but suggests their product will fix it," Icard says. "We talk about how advertisers target the fear that your body isn't normal, especially girls their age because their bodies are changing so rapidly."

She reminds the girls that advertisers want their time and attention because they've got baby-sitting money, birthday money, allowance and other income that's not earmarked for grown-up stuff like mortgages and groceries and utility bills.

She sends them on a scavenger hunt of sorts, tasking them with finding examples of girls and women being portrayed as objects or made to appear weak and imperiled.

"Each of the tricks is really supporting the main message advertisers send to girls, which is that being helpless is attractive," she says. "We talk through fairy tales, and how girls are raised to believe that helpless girls are attractive to boys. We talk about how in middle school girls start acting dumb to get boys' attention. Then we look at ads and ask for each one: Does she look happy? Does she look healthy? Does she look like she's in a position of power?"

I've got to believe this lesson changes the way the girls approach not just ads, but relationships as well — with siblings, with friends, with boys.

"What I want them to do is think critically about what they're being told," Icard says. "And to know that they've got the power and now they've got the knowledge. And they can use both of those things when they're making decisions."

And becoming leaders.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

 

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