Little Miss has just turned four, and a couple of days before her birthday, she cupped my face in her hands and said ever-so-sweetly, “Are you going to bake me a beautiful cake for my birthday?”
Now, I often buy birthday cakes, but earlier this year I made a proper homemade effort with Miss Chu’s cake which was much admired by the girls, and possibly got their hopes up about what else I could achieve. But – fast forward ten months and well, the circumstances are somewhat different. New home, new kitchen, hot, humid weather, unfamiliar shops (where is Lakeland?!) dairy-free second child… and so, my heart sank a little. “Uh…what would you like sweetheart?” – she blinked adorably – “a My Little Pony cake.”
“Maybe you could make a cake shaped like a My Little Pony!” Miss Chu exclaimed helpfully. I pondered this as I struggled to recall which cardboard box my hand-mixer might be lurking in, and finally decided it was too big an ask for our first week in a new home. “Let’s make a cake together with LOADS of sprinkles!” I suggested brightly, an idea which thankfully went down well. Three year olds are still easily diverted. And my secret plan was to find a couple of My Little Pony figurines to pop on top.
So one evening I nipped out to Hamley’s (yes – we now live near a Hamley’s!) to find the necessary pony. And for the first time, I took a proper look at the latest range of My Little Pony toys on the shelves. I’ll admit – I was kind of surprised. “Is this the normal My Little Pony?” I thought, puzzled. Now, I had a reasonably large collection of these as a child, and remember them fondly. They looked like this:
The newer ponies, I have recently discovered, look like this:
These ponies have clearly been dieting since the 80’s. The bodies are much skinnier. Their legs are longer (and rather seductively posed). The ears are pointier and perkier. Their eyes are freakishly large and extra lashes have been added. The muzzle has been transformed into something resembling a dainty duck’s beak and the nostrils have all but disappeared. Their hair is much longer, and has been jazzed up with curls and multicoloured streaks. They have accessories. All of the ponies are now winged and horned and none of them look remotely like horses.
The Barbiefication of My Little Pony pretty much sums up our current cultural ideal of female beauty and it is worrying that even the designers of toy horses are pressured to conform. Even more bizarrely, they have apparently also morphed My Little Ponies into a weird girl-pony hybrid called Equestria Girls – which drew quite a bit of flak.
And little girls can unwittingly absorb the subtleties.
Little Miss already has a strong preference for long hair and swirly skirts. One day she was watching this cute video of a 5-year-old explaining how to draw a person (boy). But she was confused about the eyelashes. “Why did he draw eyelashes on the boy?” wondered Little Miss. At first I didn’t know what she meant, and then I realised that all the animated feminine representations she usually sees have huge lashes – and she must have decided that girls have eyelashes, and boys don’t. I was amused, but also became more attuned to the impact of visual media on my daughters’ perception of cultural standards.
Miss Chu loves drawing, and like many little girls, loves to draw princesses. I noticed from her numerous sketches that she’s already sussed out how to conform to current standards of cartoon beauty. Her princesses require an oversized head with voluminous, long hair and large, wide-set eyes. The mouth and nose are small (and the nose can be practically omitted, if desired). The body is disproportionately petite with slender limbs.
I naively thought that these sort of body image issues were something to be tackled later on, when teenage girls start flicking through those glossies with the super-thin models. I didn’t expect to have to contend with super-thin ponies. And a few minutes of googling brought up a few more of my favourite toys which have been similarly transformed over the years:
The girls enjoyed comparing the before and after models and doing a spot the difference! I think Miss Chu noticed the same themes running throughout – the new models are all skinnier, with bigger eyes, redder lips, longer sleeker hair, and a daintier pose.
In a way, it’s good to start a conversation about these things when the kids are really young. As we draw princesses together, I can chat to Miss Chu about the body proportions and what elements might makes a picture seem “cute” or “pretty” – but then have a laugh about how ridiculous these proportions are compared to real people. If she is fretting about her hair or her clothes, I remind her that “people look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7) and she knows she should try and refocus her attention on character. I’m not a feminist, but we don’t have any Barbies and I mostly try to buy toys that encourage creativity and making. (Although we do have a few too many princess dressing-up outfits.) I don’t want to overreact, but I have no doubt that the influence of media will be relentless and powerful, and as a mum of two daughters, I plan to be on guard and on hand to discuss the underlying messages and manipulation.
Oh – and here’s the cake. The girls helped make and decorate it! Not aesthetically perfect, but very yummy and enjoyed down to the last sprinkle. Perhaps we got our priorities right with this one.