Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review: Where Has my Little Girl Gone? by Tanith Carey

Lion Hudson €8.99

Eilis O'Hanlon

IF Noel Coward was updating his famous song for the 21st Century, he'd surely call it: "Please let your daughter act her age, Mrs Worthington."

Girls are undeniably growing up too fast. In an increasingly over-sexualised culture, in which they're bombarded with messages they're too young to understand, how do you fight back against what the author of this new book calls the "Lolita Effect"? Where Has My Little Girl Gone? aims to provide an answer.

Part essay on the damaging effect of shooing girls with undignified haste through childhood; part survey on the most up-to-date research; most of all, Tanith Carey's book offers solid practical advice on empowering oneself against the tawdry tide of fashion, beauty products and popular culture aimed at impressionable young girls.

As a mother of two small girls herself, Carey knows well the pitfalls and pressures that come with parenthood. She's not judgemental, but she is firm.

In many ways, that's what is so impressive about this book. There's none of the usual "society is to blame" schtick, demanding that Something Must Be Done about advertising or the fashion industry or the mass media. That's the easy way out.

Carey recognises that they often behave irresponsibly, and she's not against the idea of tighter regulation, but, in the meantime, she puts responsibility back squarely where it belongs -- with parents.

We may feel powerless, she says, but we're not. Indeed, part of the problem is parents themselves, afraid of looking like prudes or killjoys in front of more liberal peers if they put their foot down about what's appropriate; one woman mentioned here was even cold-shouldered by other parents when she vetoed their plans for a makeover tent at a primary school fair. Each generation of parents inevitably reacts to the one that came before. We're now much more likely to want our children to think of us as "cool", and to give way when they want to watch films they're too young legally to see, or hang out on social networking sites, because we just don't want to turn into our own parents.

Some parents, Carey even points out, like the fact their daughters are growing up fast, because they think it's "sophisticated". Plenty of women have married well on the basis of their good looks, and see nothing wrong with encouraging their daughters to "look nice" in the hope they can do the same. But as the author constantly stresses: "What's the rush? Sex can only distract them during a crucial period in their education and development. They have the rest of their lives."

What mothers should be doing, Carey says, is providing "the down-to-earth perspective girls need when they get buffeted by comparisons, competition, faltering confidence, and classroom spitefulness". Nor are fathers let off the hook. Surveys show that girls whose fathers place undue emphasis on appearance are almost universally likely to grow up to not only place the same importance on appearance as a measure of their own worth, but to believe that they're not matching up to the ideal.

It's a no-brainer when you put it like that. That's what Tanith Carey does so well in this important and timely book. She takes a complex issue and simplifies and clarifies it until what needs to be done appears so obvious it's a wonder parents haven't already worked it out themselves.

Throughout she is unwavering in her belief that "however innocently we intend it, by dressing our daughters to look older than their age we risk them behaving in ways they aren't emotionally mature enough to handle". It's a warning which can't be repeated often enough.

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