Boys Will Be Boys & Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Summer Camp Stereotypes

Last summer, I was stopped in my tracks when I encountered this prominent display promoting kids’ summer camps as I entered my local health club, Life Time Fitness in Skokie, IL. With its stereotypical color schemes and props that reinforced gender stereotypes and expectations, it prompted me to take a closer look. It turned out the gym was offering two separate day camps for boys and girls aged 5–12. The camp for girls was called “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and the boys’ camp was called “Boys Will Be Boys.” These titles and the lurid display were bad enough, but when I read over the flyers detailing of each camp’s activities, my jaw dropped and blood started to boil.

“Boys Will Be Boys” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” Camp Display at Lifetime Fitness, Old Orchard, Skokie, IL. July 2016

After thinking it over, I realized that it was important to bring attention to this issue on a larger scale than by merely registering a complaint with the Life Time branch manager. And, over the past few months, the tone of sexism, if not outright misogyny, in the current presidential campaigns has shown the importance of teaching our children (and adults) the importance of gender equality on all levels.

At first glance, it appears that these camps are putting boys and girls on equal, if oppositional, footing by using iconic, although hypersexualized, superhero characters Batman and Wonder Woman to represent the genders, and encouraging competition between male and female campers with traditional camp activities such as tug-o-war. However, as you can see, the girls’ side of the table was scattered with glittery flowers, pink feathers, a bejeweled crown and a semi-deflated balloon that reads “Relax.” On the boys’ side, there was a “Ninja” balloon and sports equipment. That was bad enough, but once I read the flyers for each camp, it got worse. Much worse.

Camp flyers found at Lifetime Fitness, Old Orchard in Skokie, IL. Summer 2016.

As you can see, the organizers of these camps identify boys with ball sports, being active, warrior-like, and learning about science and STEM. Female empowerment, or “girl power,” is not associated with strength, but is defined by beauty rituals, cheering, and fashion. Even the colors and characters used enforce these stereotypes: a pink flamingo ballerina and goofy kangaroo artist decorate the girls’ flyer, while the boys’ is embellished with a football, soccer ball and a muscular monster holding a basketball.

As a woman, a mother and a Life Time member since 2002, I was outraged to see this bias shown so blatantly at a club that describes its “mission is to provide an entertaining, educational, friendly and inviting, functional and innovative experience of uncompromising quality that meets the health and fitness needs of the entire family.” Over the years, I have been a summer camp counselor myself, designed summer camp curriculum at an art museum, written an arts education curriculum for kindergarteners, and enrolled my twins (a boy and a girl, now 17) in many camps over the years, including those at Lifetime. Never have I encountered camps with such overt and offensive gender bias. Furthermore, as “The Healthy Way of Life Company,” Lifetime’s vision is:

“ …to help organizations, communities and individuals achieve their: total health objectives, athletic aspirations and fitness goals by doing what they love to do. We do this by providing the best places, performers, and programs that change lives positively every day.”

The disparities and sexism these two camps embody fall extremely short of the standards in Life Time’s mission and vision statements, and come nowhere near providing the best programs for all children. And I wonder, what would their summer camp sponsors, ClifKids, Annie’s, Eden Foods, Honey Stinger and Harvest Snaps would think of these camps and how they align with their companies’ core values for healthy children?

A third flier, provides even more details about the day-to-day activities for each camp. As you can see, there is a stark contrast in not only the kind of activities offered by each camp, but in the ways they are described. For boys, the words used are active, aggressive and empowering: learning, skills, mania, warrior, techniques, build, launch, superhero. For girls, they are generally more passive, gentle and entertaining: participate, party, watch, wear, festive, enjoy, dance. While the boys are making superhero masks, the girls are making flower crowns. Why use Wonder Woman in the promotional display when superhero activities are only offered to the boys?

One of the most glaring imbalances between the camps is the mention of STEM activities only on the boys’ flyer, which not only reinforces the gender gap in STEM fields, but indirectly undermines current efforts in education to encourage more girls to go into these fields. Furthermore, it ignores the importance of including art and design as core subjects, as advocates of changing STEM to STEAM have proposed, and thus infers that creative endeavors are for girls and the sciences are for boys. This glaring inequity and ignorance sends a very harmful message to both young boys and girls.

Furthermore, the activities offered by the girls’ camp primarily emphasize what the campers are wearing as well as their looks. And why is healthy eating only addressed in the girls’ camp? I am shocked that the Lifetime staff would assume that this topic was only relevant to offer to female campers, especially when we now see young girls as early as five expressing issues with their body image, and the prevalence of eating disorders. According to psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, “the overemphasis on girls’ appearance begins at babyhood,” and she continues to explain that:

“As soon as a baby is dressed in pink or blue, the world responds differently to that baby, as there are gender-based expectations on how girls should behave and what should interest them. Adults respond so much to what a girl looks like that by age five or six, young girls are getting the notion that their body is their selling point.” — Catherine Steiner-Adair, PBS Parents

In addition, using the phrase “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to describe the camp overtly conveys that being entertaining entertained is the primary desire of female children, which is reinforced when the girls’ activities are compared to the boys.’ In this context, using this title for the camp also misses and undermines the subversive, rebellious and feminist message that Cyndi Lauper conveyed in her version of the song, and sends a confusing message to young girls and boys.

Artist David Trumble created satirical depictions of feminist heroines in the sparkly style of Disney Princess in hopes of highlighting the absurdity of painting all fictitious heroines with the same brush. Image: David Trumble

Young girls (and boys) are already bombarded with homogeneous princess culture in the media, which often leads them to internalize the message that their looks are more important than their intelligence or accomplishments. It is very disappointing that a summer camp offered by a company that promotes healthy values and experiences chose to reinforce this message instead of giving children a much needed respite from it. Recent studies have shown that this is harmful to their self esteem, and author Rebecca Hains notes that:

“Princess culture is not all fun and games. The Disney Princess brand suggests that a girl’s most valuable asset is her beauty, which encourages an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance. The brand also implies that girls should be sweet and submissive, and should expect a man to come to their rescue in an act of love at first sight. Although newer characters like Elsa, Anna, Merida and Rapunzel behave in ways that correct these ideas, as a whole, the brand remains out of step with modern ideas about raising girls.”
— Rebecca Hains, Washington Post

Even worse, the phrase “boys will be boys” is one that has been used to excuse bad behavior in boys and men that involves, at the minimum, harassing girls and women; and, at the maximum, sexual assault and contributes to the foundation of rape culture. According to education professor Elizabeth Meyer, this seemingly innocuous phrase amplifies gender stereotypes, encourages unconscious biases to develop, and creates limits in children’s abilities to fully express themselves both inside and outside of expected gender norms. Meyer goes on to argue that:

The expression “boys will be boys” attempts to explain away aggressive behaviors that a small number of children exhibit by linking it with “natural” or “biological” impulses, without examining other reasons for the aggression. Linking aggressive behaviors with a child’s sex assigned at birth ignores all the other environmental (family, media influences, messages at school, etc.) and individual factors (personality, nutrition, body chemistry, etc.) that might be influencing behavior. It creates an easy excuse to fall back on so adults don’t have to examine other reasons for such aggressive behaviors. It is also often used to justify schoolyard bullying — often very extreme cases that are violent and homophobic in nature — and causes many adults to accept negative behaviors as “natural.”
Elizabeth Meyer, Psychology Today

There is nothing inherently wrong with the content of these camps, but what bothers me is that they are identified by gender and also in extremely stereotypical titles that imply inherent traits for each gender and also an implied heteronormative bias. What if a little boy wanted to do the activities at the “girls” camp, or if a girl interested in science and sports wanted to go to the “boys” camp? Why not call the camps something like “Creative Arts Celebration” and “Sports and Science Heroes,” thus eliminating the gender separation and association with the activities, and providing a space where children who do not conform to society’s expectation for their gender can have a positive experience, too.

“And in a world where girls learn early on that if their appearance and their body conforms to a certain standard they will gain higher social status, and where boys learn that deviating from a very narrow way of presenting themselves will have their hetero sexual orientation called into question, addressing children’s gender bias around these issues is a crucial step to really making a change.” — Ellen Kate, Everyday Feminism
“A sad microcosm of what our society says being a girl vs being a boy means. With three girls to raise, this breaks my heart. I’ll fight like hell for my girls to not exist in this reality.” — Matt Frye

Recently, another parent experienced similar shock and outrage when he spotted both Girls’ Life and Boys’ Life magazines at his local library. Matt Frye, a father of three daughters, posted this image on Facebook showing the contrast between the two magazines’ September 2016 covers. Both his post and the impassioned response directed at the editors of Girls’ Life by Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll, a mother of two girls and three boys, went viral, which demonstrates the indignation many of us feel about the messages young children receive from the media about gender. The photo even resulted in the perfect response from comedian Amy Schumer: “No.” Keats-Jaskoll holds the editors of Girls’ Life accountable with this powerful statement:

“You are women. Working, professional women. Is this the message you are proud of? Is this why you became publishers, writers, graphic designers? To tell girls they are the sum of their fashion, makeup and hair? I know that you are only one of many many magazines that contribute to this culture but I believe you can be part of changing all that is wrong here.”

Initially, my reaction to the covers’ comparison was similar to Frye’s and Keats-Jaskoll’s, but then it occurred to me that what bothered me as much as the implied limitations embodied by the cover of Girls’ Life were the messages given to boys on the cover of Boys’ Life, which is dominated by stereotypical masculine imagery. Yes, they mention the possibility of being a chef or an artist, but the implements of those trades are marginalized to the edges of the cover. And Boys’ Life audience is described as: “die-hard fans of games, movies, outdoors, television, sports, cars, gadgets, toys and computers.” In contrast, Girls’ Life is described as:

“…the #1 magazine for girls ages 10 to 16. Filled with everything she needs to look and feel amazing, GL features expert advice on all the important stuff (school, friendship, family and crushes) plus fashion and beauty tips, quizzes, crafts and party DIYs, celeb interviews and more.”

Katherine Young, a graphic designer, responded to this image with a redesign of the Girls’ Life cover using empowering headlines and imagery and the rallying cry “we need to be better.” Plenty of people agreed, and Young’s post also went viral. In response, Girls’ Life founder and editor Karen Bokram, defends her magazine; and I will concede that their website does include more serious topics when compared to the fluff on the print cover. However, if the magazine wants to be respected for providing that content, then why don’t they include any headlines on its covers that also point to those more diverse and serious topics, as well as those focused exclusively on celebrities, boys, fashion, makeup and hair?

Katherine Young. http://www.katherineyoungcreative.com/

In an interview with Refinery 29, Bokram asserts: “it’s okay to like lip gloss or be interested in fashion… I don’t know how [the problem] became ‘either you like lip gloss and clothes or you like being an astronaut.’” I think she’s missing the point, and that modern feminists don’t see it as an either-or, and I’m sure that plenty of female astronauts like their lipgloss, too, and I’d love to see these badass babes on the cover of Girls’ Life, just as they are recognized and celebrated here in this Glamour magazine story.

Source: Glamour.com, January 2016
“In first grade Jessica Meir made a drawing of herself standing on the moon. Turns out she underestimated her own ambition: Today, at 38, Meir could become the first human to touch down on an even farther destination: Mars. A next step for man? Yes, and a giant leap for womankind. For the first time NASA’s latest class of astronauts is 50 percent female. A fearless group, Meir and her colleagues Anne McClain, 36, Christina Hammock Koch, 37, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, 38, have already flown combat missions in Iraq, braved the South Pole, and dived under thick layers of ice in Antarctica.”
— Ginny Graves, Glamour Magazine, January 2016

As someone who has the power to influence the perceptions of young girls like Jessica Meir, Bokram has the responsibility to present a more balanced viewpoint on her magazine’s cover. She can and should show young girls that it’s not a choice between wearing lipgloss or being an astronaut, and she can expose them to both topics in interesting and empowering ways. Currently, Girls’ Life is painting a picture that skews much more lipgloss than “astronaut” on the magazine’s covers, and the October/November issue is not much better than September’s. It remains to be seen if Bokram and her staff will take this important feedback to heart and include more substantial cover headlines and content going forward.

Just as Girls’ Life can do better by their young readers, Lifetime Fitness can do better by their campers. In fact, we can all do better. We live in a time when although we have the first woman running for president, there is a outrageous double standard applied to the candidates. Hillary Clinton is constantly criticized for her looks and apparel in ways that male candidates never are, and by men and women alike. And her opponent’s long and consistent history of misogynistic, inappropriate and demeaning comments about women’s appearances, let alone his actions, embodies the “boys will be boys” rape culture in the worst way ever.

Books such as Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and Rebecca Hains’ “The Princess Problem,” have also addressed the harm of children perceiving that certain products marketed to them (and summer camp is a product) are only meant for girls or boys. Recent studies have shown that overtly gendered toys are harmful to children, and even Target (yay, Target!) just removed the pink and blue color- and gender-coded signage from their toy aisles. Organizations like Let Toys Be Toys and Let Clothes Be Clothes are championing gender neutrality and unisex marketing to children. A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are doing amazing work promoting girls’ empowerment. Author Hains emphasizes the importance of gender neutrality in children’s toys and activities:

“Through play, children make sense of their place in the world around them and the future roles available to them. Why shouldn’t girls feel free to play with STEM-related toys? Why shouldn’t boys feel free to play at caregiving and nurturing? As a society, we no longer believe women should be restricted to certain jobs or that fathers are ill-suited to tending babies. So children’s play should reflect modern cultural norms, rather than be boxed into 1950s-era stereotypes driven by marketers’ desire to segment the child audience for maximum profit.” — Rebecca Hains, Washington Post

Finally, to their credit, the majority of the kids’ camps offered by Life Time both locally and nationally have weekly themes that are not segregated by gender. They include activities that were offered only to one gender in the boys’ and girls’ camps in question, like STEM, superheroes and dance. In addition, both camps at Old Orchard included use of the gym’s swimming pool and rock climbing wall, and all the campers went to Medieval Times and shared a fitness-oriented “Fun Day” on their last day.

It is troubling that the monkey and rhino characters, who appear “male,” are natural colors, while the cat character, who appears to be “female,” is colored bright pink. That aside, these camp themes are overall much more aligned with the company mission and vision. Hopefully, in the future, Lifetime will seriously and carefully consider their content before offering gender-specific programming for younger children that is so blatantly, narrowly and harmfully defined by stereotypes and expectations.

While much recent progress has been made to address these problems in our culture, this is an ongoing conversation that, as parents and as a society, we need to be having with both our daughters and sons in order to create future generations that are not defined or limited by gender stereotypes, and that are encouraged and empowered to define and celebrate themselves as individuals. I agree with Meyer, who writes:

“I want my child to grow up in a world that allows him to explore his strengths and express his personality in ways that are true to him, not in ways that society believes boys are supposed to behave…this will hopefully minimize some of the academic gaps reported on here, as well as reduce some of the violence that many young men engage in, and allow gender-creative and transgender youth to be affirmed and supported in their home and school environments.”
— Elizabeth Meyer, Psychology Today

And last, just listen to the words of Daisy Edmonds, a precocious eight year old girl, as she talks about how the disparate messages on the shirts for boys and girls carried by her local Tesco (England’s Target) store made her feel.

“Everyone thinks that girls should just be pretty, and boys should just be adventurous. I think that’s wrong, because why should boys and girls (clothes) even be separate, because we’re just as good as each other.”

Daisy’s critique of the gendered clothing is both hilarious and heartbreaking, and she captures the problem in a nutshell. I’d love to know what she thinks of Lifetime’s camp flyers and the Girls’ Life magazine cover.

As a feminist, progressive, mother, wife and daughter, I hope that by speaking out about Life Time’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Boys Will Be Boys” camps that I am contributing to the conversation that will help us all work together to make the world a better, more equal, inclusive and safer place for both our sons and daughters. We owe it to our little boys to show them that becoming a dancer or designer is as valid as being an athlete or engineer; and we owe it to our little girls to show them that it’s acceptable and important to be interested in both sparkles and substance.

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UPDATE: I recently spoke with Jessica Longtine, who is the Senior Director of Life Time Kids, and oversees the development of all the children’s programming for Life Time. She took the time to read this article, and we had a very thoughtful and productive conversation. She was very receptive to my feedback, and, as a result, Life Time will be making the following changes to these camps (which were offered at all LTF branches), as described in her statement below:

“At Life Time, it is our mission to support the growth and development of our next generation while inspiring a healthy way of life. We offer an extensive variety of programs to support their growing interests and help children discover what they are most passionate about. In doing so, we do not intend to stereotype children or lead them down a culture-driven path. We truly value the feedback and input from our members and we will change the name, marketing and content of this specialty camp so that both camps are gender neutral. Thank you Laura, for taking the time to bring this to our attention so we can rectify immediately.” — Jessica P. Longtine

Thank you Jessica and Life Time for being open to challenging feedback and proactive about making changes to their programming in order to make their facilities a more welcoming, balanced, and encouraging place for all children. I look forward to seeing the new versions of these camps.


Laura Tanner Swinand grew up in Santa Barbara, California, where she played with both dolls and bugs. She lives in Evanston, Illinois, with her husband of 25 years, their son and daughter, two dogs and two cats. At the University of Pennsylvania she majored in art history and rowed on the crew team. She worked in museum education after receiving a M.A. in art history from the University of Southern California, and is currently the founder and designer of her own company, Laura Tanner Jewelry.