Why Gender Stereotyping won't wash with the next generation.
During the last decade, something very exciting has happened in the world of cognitive neuroscience. For the first time, we have been able to look inside a living human brain. What they had once believed, that the vast majority of brain development happened in the first few years of life, is not the full story. What Neuroscientists have now discovered is that, prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that deals with high level cognitive functions, such as planning, social interaction, self awareness and the inhibition of inappropriate behaviour, changes most dramatically during adolescence. In fact the amount of grey matter in the human brain peaks during puberty. For Girls that’s around 11-12 years old and boys are one to two years later at around 12-13 years old.
So science now has proof that there is a reason why teenagers behave like ……teenagers. I would really urge you to watch the Ted talk given by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blackemore called ‘The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain’ – it’s astounding.
I was fascinated to learn from Professor Blakemore, that Pre-frontal Cortex is undergoing such a significant change, at EXACTLY the same time that young people are first using Personal Care products. Which led me to think about the possibilities, the benefits and the responsibilities this new scientific discovery would or could have on my industry. I’ll talk a bit more about that later but first I’d like to tell you how, having been a stay at home dad, for 12 years, I came to retrain in cosmetic science and to develop a range of unisex personal care products for teenagers.
When my daughter turned 11 she asked me to get a deodorant that would keep her fresh for the entire school day. I dutifully headed off to the supermarket and was surprised to find that deodorants are gender segregated… men’s products in one place and women’s products at a decorous distance. … they are not allowed to share an aisle, let alone a shelf. I couldn’t understand why until I looked at the names of the deodorants I was hoping to buy for my daughter.
For my daughter; Tease, Be Sinful, Minx and Play it Sexy. Emily was 11. I wasn’t keen to encourage her to play it sexy as she could barely play Trivial Pursuit.
I also have a son and was fascinated to see what products were aimed at him - Products called Force, Power, Control and Rise
This was the marketplace I was coming into when I decided I was going to create a unisex brand for my children.
I retrained in Cosmetic Science, became a member of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists and am now delighted to be an Ambassador for the SCS Schools Education Programme, ‘ Scrub up on Science’. In that capacity I go into schools, primarily, to encourage young people to pursue science to A level and to consider Chemistry and biology as a career but I also take the opportunity to ask young people about the personal care products that are available to them, shampoo’s conditioners, moisturizers, face washes and deodorants and to find out what they feel about the marketing that’s aimed at their age group and what they make of the way my industry serves them. So here is a small sample of the some of the reactions I’ve had to those questions recorded in a couple of schools I visited just before Christmas.
So Jake, “just puts it on because he doesn’t want to smell” and that seems to be the overall message I’m getting from the young people I talk to. All they really want is efficacy, they want our products to do what they say they are going to do.
So why is it that my industry is determined to use sexual stereotyping in an attempt to define young people or tell them how they should behave.
Our products are taken into teenager’s private spaces, bedrooms, bathrooms and they are used on intimate parts of the body. Scientifically, as an industry we are doing well when it comes to dealing with perspiration, greasy hair and oily skin but I think we are doing less well, even failing them when it comes to empowering them through the messages and images we use. Given what neurological science is telling us, I feel even more strongly that what we are talking about here is more than moisturizer and deodorant. We have an opportunity to develop a trusted, enabling and meaningful relationship with these young people that starts at the age of 11 and can continue throughout their lives. I think that we have a role to play in supporting them psychologically and stop undermining them. There is a responsibility while they are so vulnerable and I think we are getting it wrong.
The Children’s Society reported a survey in 2015. England came bottom or near the bottom in an international survey of 15 countries disclosing how young people feel about Body Image, Appearance and Self-Confidence. 12-13 year old girls in England, where more unhappy than any other age group of girls or boys in any of the other 15 countries. I don’t believe this is an inevitable consequence for girls at this age, as the Children’s society state, this situation could be addressed through social change. I don’t know for sure if personal care has an impact on these issues but listening to the young people I talk to and I think there is a link and it’s not a risk I want to take.
Why are we still as an industry strongly suggesting to young men that they have to be domineering, powerful and aggressive or to young women that they have to be submissive or enticing when all they really want to do is have clean skin, clean hair and as Ben said in the video, not be the one smelling in the corner.
In 2015 a YouGov survey reported that 49% of 19-24 year olds do not define themselves as 100% Heterosexual. That’s a pretty amazing statistic given the way we market identically formulated products to young people. Over the past decade there has been a sea-change in the way young people identify with sexuality and gender as a means to define themselves. Here in the west, In an era where gay marriage, gender fluidity and equal rights are part of everyday life it’s no wonder the Pink for girls and blue for boys message seems so old fashioned to them. I think my industry is years behind our customers, they are growing up in a world that is accepting, generous and liberal and we are still trying to chain them to outdated and, I think, harmful messaging. At SAMFARMER we are not a part of that. We don’t want to undermine our young people when they are at their most vulnerable – physically, emotionally and as Prof Blakemore said neurologically. I want my industry to enable, support and encourage teenagers throughout their adolescence and beyond. The words Personal Care have real meaning for me. I came into the industry because of my children but all teenagers deserve better. I am SAMFARMER. This is personal and I do care.