So what’s the problem if young girls dress and act sexy as they do in Toddler and Tiaras ? The problem is that it’s an act. They are performing all the outer trappings of sexuality without knowing what sex actually means. Orenstein writes:

“Sexual entitlement itself has become objectified; like identity, like femininity, it, too, has become a performance, something to ‘do’ rather than to ‘experience’. Teasing and turning boys on might give girls a certain thrill, even a fleeting sense of power but it will not help them understand their own pleasure, recognize their own arousal, allow them to asset themselves in intimate (let alone casual) relationships”.

Something Orenstein does not seem to quite grasp is that performance is actually life. That one might say that everything we do is performance and quite possibly always was, if not as far back as the caveman era, then at least around the 19th C.

In his seminal book Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes:

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage in such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whist she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within herself as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

We may argue that some of us at least are no longer born “into the keeping of men”. But I find the rest to be true. Whether we are conscious of it or not, as women we are still playing out this split personality of surveyor and surveyed. It explains much of our beauty industry and its effect on us.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to argue for scrapping this entire system. However, it’s not so simple. This way of seeing, of being, has been part of the human mating ritual, human sexuality and generally human life for so long that it might not be possible or even desirable to dismantle it in one fell blow. As Laura Mulvey says in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” a “reconstructed new pleasure” cannot exist “in the abstract”. “The alternative is the thrill that comes with leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive of a new language of desire.”

So how do we conceive of this new language of desire? Well, it’s not simple to undo centuries of heteronormativity. Orenstein points in her book to how an Anal-is-the-new-Oral culture emerging in high schools in US that does not seem to focus on girl’s pleasure. Orenstein says that she is not against girls having sex, and I agree. She says: “What I fear for my daughter, then, is not that she will someday act in a sexual way; it is that she will learn to act sexually against her own self-interest.” Amen.

Is this all much ado about nothing? A few excerpts from Orenstein’s book:

According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behaviour.

…All of this does not suddenly kick in when a girl blows out the candles on her thirteenth birthday cake. From the time she is born – in truth, well before – parents are bombarded with zillions of little decisions, made consciously or not, that will shape their daughter’s ideas and understanding of her femininity, her sexuality, her self. How do you instill pride and resilience in her?

Answering such questions has, surprisingly, become more complicated since the mid-1990s, when the war whoop of “Girl Power” celebrated ability over body. Somewhere along the line, that message became its own opposite. The pursuit of physical perfection was recast as a source – often the source – of young women’s “empowerment”. Rather than freedom from traditional constraints, then, girls were now free to “choose” them. Yet the line between “get to” and “have to” blurs awfully fast.

Orenstein observes something similar in the US to what was observed at a Hong Kong-based study: “Instead of feeling greater latitude and choice in how to be female – which is what one would hope – they now feel they must not only ‘have it all’ but be it all” Cinderella and Supergirl. Aggressive and agreeable. Smart and stunning. She says:

…In her book Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas refers to this as the bargain girls and women strike, the price of success, the way they unconsciously defuse the threat their progress poses to male dominance. “We can excel in school, play sports, go to college aspire to – and get – jobs previously reserved for men, be working mothers, and so forth. But in exchange we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, decorating, perfectly calibrated child-rearing, about pleasing men and being envied by other women.”

I think this is sums up the dilemma many of us are in today. And I hope it’s something we can sort out and not bequeath to our daughters.