By Bailey Shoemaker Richards and Kaye Toal

Today is boot camp for all of you 101 shoppers. This holiday season, it’s more important than ever that we tackle the stores with a critical eye, since it seems like companies are always ramping up their attempts to sexualize, demean and otherwise alienate young women shoppers. From ads that use the bodies of women and girls to sell products to products that explicitly tell us we should value looks over minds (JC Penney’s “too pretty to do homework” shirt, anyone?), it’s time for girls everywhere to learn the ins and outs of critical, active shopping. Join us with an inquiring mind and a willingness to learn, and at the end of this crash course, you’ll be able to complete your shopping with ease.

Being a critical shopper is easier than you’d think! Let’s start with ads. You might notice that ads rarely showcase what they’re selling, especially when they’re aimed at teenagers and adults. A lot of ads involve women – their bodies, their mouths, their torsos, and their breasts, all Photoshopped to an unrealistic ideal. When you’re clipping coupons or perusing your favorite magazine, ask yourself these questions about the ads you see:

  • What is the ad supposed to be selling?
  • Is that obvious by the content of the ad?
  • If there are people in the ad, what are they doing?
  • Do the people look like people you could see on the street? Why or why not?
  • How much skin do you see? Whose is it?

These questions can help you become more aware of how the company you’re considering buying from is using women, girls, and their bodies. Some ads pass! Most, unfortunately, do not.

Why should I be an active shopper?

Taking an active role in supporting companies that sell positive products for young women and avoid sexualizing girls and women is an easy way to make an impact during the holiday season and throughout the rest of the year. Not buying products from companies that sell things like crotchless panties and padded bras for children sends a message to those companies: if this is what you’re selling, we’re not buying. Seeking out companies that support girls and the development of healthy bodies and minds sends an equally important message about what we as shoppers and as women actually want.

When shopping for presents for girls, you can ask yourself:

  • What color is the packaging you’re looking at?
  • What words and phrases are used as part of the marketing material?

You might notice that most things aimed at young girls are pink or purple and include words like “realistic” (you know, like “realistic” cooking set or “realistic” baby cries) and “imaginative” (you know, like “this doll doesn’t actually do anything on its own, so be imaginative!”).

Dolls are particularly difficult, because they are so pervasive and often very stylized. Some handy things to consider when buying a doll for a girl in your life are:

  • Does this doll look like someone you could see on the street? Why or why not? For instance, how big is her head in comparison to her hips or her breasts? How tiny is her torso? What do her legs look like? Are her feet constantly arched, like she’d perpetually be wearing heels?
  • What is she wearing? How tight are her clothes? What color are they?
  • Does she do anything (like, for instance, an action figure might)?
  • If she has a profession, what is it? This is a good question to compare to male dolls. What are their professions?

Can I just not buy a problematic product?

The refusal to make a purchase of an item like a shirt that tells girls they’re bad at math, or an unnecessarily gendered toy, or a watch, perfume or camera that’s advertised through the sexualization of women’s bodies is just one step in the process of communicating with companies. Money talks, but doesn’t say much without our own voices to accompany it.

Become willing to talk back to companies about the purchases you make – or don’t. When JC Penney or Forever 21 decides to sell a shirt telling girls they’re “too pretty to do math,” or “allergic to algebra,” don’t stop at refusing to buy it. Take a picture of an item you do like from a company, along with an image of harmful ads or products, and send them to their corporate office with a note about why you won’t be spending money there. Start a petition telling the company exactly why they need to stop certain selling and advertising practices. Not buying a certain product is one way to make a statement, and taking that statement to the public sphere makes an even louder one.

Sometimes, ad campaigns that are really upsetting are actually selling a product that you love, or companies that have bad policies are selling something you need, or any combination of guilt-inducing “bad company, awesome product” issues. Fear not, savvy shopper! There are ways to combat this!

  • Write a letter. If you can avoid it, don’t buy the product. Write a letter to the CEO of the company or to someone in the marketing department explaining that you love the product, but their advertising campaign/company policies was just too unpalatable for you to deal with. If possible, get people you know to participate! Start an all-out letter-writing campaign! About-Face, one of SPARK’s partners, has a guide for writing a great complaint letter.
  • Start a petition. Petitions definitely create change. With 300 signatures, we here at SPARK got a horrible Halloween costume removed from both online and retail stores. Petitions are easy and free to create; is a great petition site.
  • Buy from independent retailers or retailers with better policies. Seems obvious, right? Sometimes people just forget! A lot of indie retailers have great gifts that you know won’t be supporting anything you don’t want it to support. We’ve compiled a list below.
  • Make your own! Indie retail is better anyway! If you’re the crafty type, make something for your loved ones instead of buying from a company that upsets you. Better yet, combine this one with one of the above. Make it a bonding project, even; if your daughter or sister or niece or cousin is just dying for this doll or that t-shirt, and you can’t stand the company, buy a craft kit or a blank t-shirt and make your own stuff!

How can I become an active shopper?

Becoming an active shopper takes time, and it’s important to discover your own guidelines for what companies you want to support and those you don’t. There is no hard and fast rule about which companies are “good” and which are “bad” (although we do have a list of suggestions for stores that have a great track record, as well as those on the naughty list).

Research companies before shopping. It takes some effort, but it’s a good way to find out if the company is worth patronizing. Look at the company’s current and past advertising: Do the ads rely on unhealthily thin, primarily white women to sell their product? Are the ads using women’s sexuality to garner interest in a product? Almost any major clothing chain is guilty of this, but so are companies that sell cars, furniture, beverages and electronics. Sometimes there is no ideal company for buying a specific product, but choosing the company that has shown the most positive response to consumer feedback helps to reinforce that continued message.

Look for companies that share your values and support the messages you want to send to young girls and women. Help direct other shoppers to those companies as well, and have conversations with friends and family about the benefits of applying a critical eye to your shopping habits.

Shopping for presents can be kind of frustrating once you start thinking critically about what you’re buying, but it’s worth it! You can find toys and gifts that don’t fall into damaging tropes. Try independent stores, or buy through organizations like Girl Scouts!

What else can I do?

  • Research any company you’re considering buying from! Googling [name of company] corporate policies often yields useful results.
  • Buy locally! Get your loved ones gift certificates to locally-owned, non-chain restaurants or local independent bookstores (you can find your closest one using this awesome website).
  • Check out our partners for activism kits! About-Face has an amazing body image kit, for instance.
  • Read Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood, written by a SPARK co-founder and experts in the field of psychology and media’s marketing to children and teens. The books are wonderful resources for parents who want to discuss media literacy at home.
  • There ARE in fact companies that aren’t evil. LUSH, The Spoon Sisters, Adagio Teas, are just a couple of examples. Fantastic organizations like Girl Scouts also offer gifts.
  • If you see sexualization of girls in ads or anything that looks remotely like any of this, do something about it. You can help SPARK change! We can’t do it alone!