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     Volume 7 Issue 30 | July 25, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Superficiality as an Art Form

Part I

Farah Ghuznavi

In an era when some adults are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of media exposure and consumerism on children, a recent report published in the UK makes it clear that these concerns are indeed valid. The report entitled “Growing up in a Material World” is published by Britain's biggest teachers' association, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and raises a number of issues around the fact that companies are unashamedly targeting their advertising campaigns towards increasingly younger children.

The idea behind this is to exploit childrens' “pester power” i.e. if children want something badly enough, they can hound their parents (particularly those who may already be feeling guilty for not giving them enough time and attention) into buying whatever it is that they want. Ironically enough, it is also likely to be those parents who have more disposable income, whose hectic work habits may lead them to assuage their guilt in this way! And although the report focuses on British children, this pattern will be recognisable to many parents living beyond the borders of the UK...

A warning from www.consumeraffairs.com

Among the concerns raised by the report is that the advertising campaigns target a whole range of products towards children, from day to day purchases of food and drink, to special treats such as restaurant meals, to clothes and toys. Within the latter category, the emphasis on branded goods such as designer clothing, “in” toys like Bratz and expensive electronic items such as Playstation can make a serious dent in most parents' wallets. But it is perhaps the growing trend towards childhood obesity -- a combination of junk food and “playstation lifestyles” that is most worrying to many child welfare experts.

As one measure to address these problems, the report calls for a ban on the advertising of all “unhealthy” food and drink targeted at children on TV channels before the 9 p.m. watershed. Figures from Ofcom, the television regulator, shows that teachers' concerns are likely to be justified since products with high sugar, salt or fat content accounted for 82%-92% of all food and drink advertising within the timeframe mentioned.

Nor are these problems in any way specific to the UK, as already mentioned. As many middle-class parents in Dhaka can tell you, there are large numbers of children being exposed to constant media bombardment promoting high-sugar, low-nutrition soft drinks, who sometimes refuse to drink water simply because they have grown used to these highly-addictive artificial flavours!

The tactics used by British companies that are promoting their products in increasingly competitive markets include schemes such as vouchers or special gifts, which have begun multiplying at an exponential rate. Sometimes, the irony of what is on offer seems to escape the companies and sadly enough, ill-educated consumers as well. It cannot be considered anything other than slightly obscene that manufacturers of chocolate and potato chips are among the biggest sponsors of sports events and sporting equipment providers to British schools.

As one parent sarcastically pointed out, rather than encouraging your child to eat ten bars of chocolate in order to obtain a “free” tennis ball, it might be cheaper and healthier to just buy the tennis ball! In their report, the teachers' union emphasised that schools should not be pressurised into using commercial materials (usually provided “free”) in classrooms or take part in promotional campaigns such as voucher schemes, since the real cost of participation is likely to be higher than any benefits gained.

Bratz Dolls, one of the highly advertised products for little girls

But one of the most serious concerns raised in the report relates to the “sexploitation” of children through commercial marketing which includes the sale of pink and black lace lingerie to children, t-shirts with sexually explicit slogans, and padded bras aimed at pre-pubescent girls (in one case with a “Little Miss Naughty” logo on them!). While companies have argued that they are merely giving the market what it demands, this justification is a little hard to swallow particularly one supermarket chain's claim that the pole-dancing kit aimed at children is not “sexually orientated” but “clearly aimed at adults who wanted to improve their children's fitness”! Perhaps they should just invest in a frisbee instead?

While the growing preoccupation with children's clothing and grooming may take more “sophisticated” forms in countries like the UK, the dangers of consumerist extremism are not too far from our own doorsteps, as made evident in an article by India Today. In recent years, India has seen an ever-expanding craze around appearance and accessories for a growing segment of middle-class and upper middle-class children. These range from the more predictable aspects of grooming, such as branded clothing and stylish haircuts, to the rather alarming preoccupation with manicures, beauty treatments and even cosmetic surgery.

How far these tendencies go, in some cases, can be seen from an emerging trend to celebrate children's birthdays in salons and spas in some parts of urban India. One little girl in Chennai celebrated her 6th birthday with a beauty salon party for herself and her friends, where salon staff gave them manicures, pedicures and new hairstyles, and painted and tattooed their nails as well. As a finishing touch, the children got to take home vanity cases containing a nail polish, lip gloss and lipstick!

The reasons behind this obsession with “looking good” - as defined in a strikingly stereotypical fashion - has the same roots in India as it does in many affluent western countries. As some Indians become richer, they are increasingly looking for things to spend their money on, including conspicuous consumption and personal grooming - to differentiate them from the crowd, so to speak. While designer clothing, flashy cars and membership of luxurious gyms and spas for adults are one thing, transferring these preoccupations to children has far more dangerous and damaging implications.

According to a leading fashion consultant and grooming expert in India, as greater numbers of children are attracted by the prospect of careers in modelling and television, he finds children as young as 12 coming to him for assistance, in some cases accompanied by their parents. Sociologists have increasingly been commenting on the western preoccupation with “celebrity culture” where fame and money are routinely considered to be more important than intelligence or talent; sadly, the same phenomenon appears to be taking root closer to home.

Another key reason behind the obsession with superficial appearances is related to that eternal cause determining child behaviour: peer pressure. But just how far this is now being taken is illustrated by the case of one 16-year-old girl in India, whose boyfriend began criticising her for not looking “hot” enough in her revealing tops. Because she could not deal with the fear of rejection, she actually underwent cosmetic surgery to enhance her bust. This of course raises the question of what her parents, who presumably were financing her surgery, were thinking of to allow such a young girl to undergo a major form of cosmetic surgery!

But it seems increasingly clear that in many cases, parents are part of the problem. Some parents, bizarrely enough, see access to grooming services as providing an advantage to their children in today's competitive socioeconomic environment. A 17-year-old schoolgirl in Delhi described how her “beauty regime” has included getting her body waxed since the age of 13, and facials and hairstyling three times a month since the age of 15, all of which comes with a price-tag of around Rs. 5,000 a month. Even more worrying is the case of two sisters aged 14 and 10 years respectively, who come for manicures, hairstyling, facials and spa treatments a few times a month!

“Kids grow up too early, are more aware and have more money to spend. This is the disease of any affluent society…” says one of the leading plastic surgeons in India. According to the doctors, there appears to be a direct correlation between the amount of money parents have and the extent of impossible demands that they make. Many teenagers end up in clinics with their mothers, holding a photograph of their favourite film-star and asking for a particular type of nose or chin!

(to be continued...)

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