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Aspiring to be "Pretty Cure"

Childhood dreams: children imagine for themselves what they will become when they grow up and role-play the people they see around them. These are some of the most important learning activities young children engage in.

They can also be important clues for the adults around them as to what they are thinking about, what they are being exposed to, and what views they are forming about the world around them. This pretending and role-play can also be an important entrance into conversations about very sophisticated notions.

Having been educated in a hotbed of feminist thought at one of the preeminent women's colleges in New England, I was quite sure of raising my daughter to be an equally-righted human being, an individual who would laugh at the ridiculous notion of gender limitations, whom no one could ever make to feel inferior without her consent (to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt). In short, a shatterer of glass ceilings. She had her first toy truck before she could walk, and her grandfather was careful to consult me before buying her a princess puzzle with mix-n-match outfits for her birthday.

So it was in a state of utter disbelieving shock that I drove her home from nursery school that day the teacher handed me a thin strip of paper that bore my only child's wish for the Tanabata Star Festival. Her first formal wish-upon-a-star was to become Pretty Cure, known as "Purikyu'a" in Japanese.

For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with Purikyu'a, imagine Barbie as a superhero, dressed in a short-skirted school girl's uniform that shows a lot of leg and a wisp of panty, changing into a superhero that dresses in lots of ribbons and lace, with hair that explodes from her head in fantastic styles, and a skirt no longer than before. Their eyes are the size of saucers, and their thighs are only slightly wider than their wrists.

This was, apparently, what my child now aspired to become.

Such aspirations are hardly uncommon; it seems most of the girls in "Squirrel Class" with my daughter wrote the same wish on their papers, too. This observation was confirmed on our next visit to a department store, when the prominent displays of numerous items bearing Purikyu'a images were enthusiastically pointed out to me by a small but very directive finger. I saw many other parents that day, too, frowning down at overpriced Purikyu'a bags or sweatshirts being clutched tightly by small girls ? no boys ? who had already decided to take them home.

During the following weeks I was forced to buy a myriad of "Purikyu'a" goods. In my attempts to temper this fascination with a healthy lifestyle, we ended up with a Purikyu'a scooter to promote physical activity and a Purikyu'a puzzle for intellectual development. Yet the irony of spending every meal looking at the images of impossibly thin girls on rice bowls and mugs finally became too much for me, and I hesitantly broached the subject, unsure of how or what about body image I could explain to a young child.

"You know, these Purikyu'a look pretty funny," I said casually, pointing to the picture on her rice bowl at breakfast.

My comment was met with stony silence. I pushed on.

"I mean, look at how big their eyes are. Compared to their faces, they're so big! Imagine if Mommy's eyes were that big," I continued, holding my rounded hands up to my face like pretend binoculars.

K. looked up at my face, then back at the bowl. The cogs were turning.

"And look at that hair," I continued. My thought was to point out how completely ridiculous they looked, and then talk about their body size. "They have hair that is exploding from their heads! Can you imagine if my hair looked like that?!" I reached up and pull some of my hair from its bun, holding it above my head. I could reset it later.

A smile spread over K.'s face. "Oh, yes," she cried, holding up her own hair with hands covered in bits of rice and squash. I would comb it out before we left for nursery school. "They're too silly!"

She seemed to be getting it, so I thought I would let her point out something strange about their appearance, and then talk about how unnaturally skinny they were.

"They sure are funny-looking. Do you see anything strange?" I asked, pointing again at their image on the rice bowl.

"They have no stomachs."

Moments when the sky opens up, and a beam of light comes down on you and your child and it is clear that ? even though you have made her cry trying to get out the door on time more days this week than not ? you must be doing something right, these moments are few and far between for a working mother. But this was one, a very sweet one.

At first, I was completely shocked. How could she be so astute?

I took the rice bowl in my hands and looked at it very closely, pretending to notice for the first time. "Yes, you're right! They have no stomachs! How can they be strong and powerful if they have no stomachs?"

She looked at me and with a serious expression said, "That's not good, right?" shaking her head in consternation.

In fact, she was even more right than I had realized. A group researching the consequences of a real woman having a Barbie-like body found that "her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and a few centimeters of bowel." Their findings concluded that, "A real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition" (Beauty and Body Image).

So has her opinion of Purikyu'a changed? She seems less obsessed with them than she was before, but of course that is relative. She still likes the color pink more than I am comfortable with, but I am glad she is her own person.

What I did not realize then, however, was the most serious ramification of this episode: that at an extremely young age, K. had not only observed but also internalized the fact that these images of young women she idealized were skinny. Of the myriad things that are strange about the characterized images of girls that are Purikyu'a, the first that came to mind for her was that they "have no stomachs". Body-size consciousness had already set in at age three.

Yet is it realistic to be concerned about such young girls' body images? A media survey conducted by Children Now revealed two out of three girls responding that they "wanted to look like a character on TV," and a third saying they had already "changed something about their appearance to resemble that character" (Media and Girls).

In fact, K. has occasionally insisted that she have five pigtails, which does give her hair the "exploding" look of Purikyu'a locks. Thankfully, she does not yet seem to realize that the amount one eats ? or doesn't eat ? relates to body size. Hopefully I have a little more time to lay the groundwork for healthy eating habits before these issues rear their ugly heads.

Yet it is certainly not as much time as I would have thought. As younger children are given more money to spend freely, companies market more high-end goods to them. In her book, Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, & Food, Dr. Margo Maine notes that cosmetic companies are marketing make-up to nine- and ten-year-olds, and Abercrombie and Fitch created a line of thong underwear for elementary school students.

The models that children ? and all of us ? see are also more severely thin: models twenty years ago were about ten percent below average weight, but now they are down to just 75% of a woman's average weight (Beauty and Body Image). Last September, organizers of a fashion show in Madrid decided to ban models that were not within a "healthy weight range" (Hellmich). Nada Stotland, Vice President of the American Psychiatric Association, states that studies have established that "...seeing super-thin models can play a role in causing anorexia," and she then goes on to conclude about recent runway models that, "These people look scary. They don't look normal."

She could have been talking about Purikyu'a.

So if, like two out of three girls, K. is going to continue to wish to be like a TV character, I personally would feel more comfortable if she would aspire to become some other character, like Doraemon, rather than Purikyu'a. Then, of course, I'd have to take extra care cleaning out her pockets before washing her clothes.

Beauty and Body Image in the Media (2006). Canada: Media Awareness Network. 2, 2006).

Hellmich, Nanci (2006). Do thin models warp girls' body image? USA Today. Sept. 26, 2006.

Maine, Margo, Ph.D (1991). Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, & Food. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books.

Media and Girls (2006). Canada: Media Awareness Network. (Dec. 2, 2006).

Toei Animation (2006). "New Program: Futariwa, Pretty Cure." Japan: Toei Animation. (Jan. 25, 2007).

Toei Animation (2006). "Futariwa, Pretty Cure Splash Star." Japan: Toei Animation. (Jan. 25, 2007).

Sarah Ogawa
Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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