'Everything that is wrong with Western society today can be summed up in one symbolic photo'

Lucy Cavendish fears that at the age of five her daughter is already beginning to buy into the sexualisation of women

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My five-year-old daughter came down the stairs the other day dressed as "a fairy". She had on a pink frilly tutu, a pink vest that she'd rolled up like a crop top and a tiara. She also had a microphone she was given for Christmas (not by me) that plays Justin Bieber songs.

She walked down the stairs, wiggling and waggling, and then she turned round, gave me a pout and stuck her bottom in the air.

I was shocked. It seemed such a sexualised thing to do and I couldn't understand where Ottoline had got this action from. I don't behave like that, God forbid. Neither does anyone else I know.

My friends suggested my daughter had got her moves from a TV show such as The X Factor. But we don't watch The X Factor. We don't really watch television at all. And my daughter only seems to like Peppa Pig and, unless Peppa has a friend who is a lap dancer, it's hardly come from there.

Yet this overt sexualisation of the female sex is inescapable. As Dr Helen Wright, the headmistress of St Mary's, a girls' boarding school in Wiltshire, says: "The descent of Western civilisation can practically be read into every curve (of which, you will note, there are indeed many). Officially the hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?"

She is referring to Kim Kardashian, who is pictured on the front of Zoo magazine wearing very little and flaunting her impressive figure. Kardashian – for those of you who have missed out – is famous for taking a central role in a leaked sex tape and starring in a reality TV programme about her family. Dr Wright goes on to say, "I venture to suggest, to say that almost everything that is wrong with Western society today can be summed up in that one symbolic photo."

Is she right? Will my daughter grow up to think that her worth will be decided on how sexy, or not, her body is?

Women, of course, have always been feted for their looks. I remember watching Carry On films and marvelling at Barbara Windsor's boobs – as did most of the nation. I am sure there were loads of young women back then wondering if they could become famous because of their bouncing bristols. Page three girls, glamour models, pin-ups, these have been around since the year dot. The adulation of women for being overtly sexual, or suggesting the promise of sex, has long been with us and is not going away soon.

It's the role model part that has incensed Dr Wright. When I was growing up, women were encouraged to have careers, to achieve, to break through the glass ceiling. Now, fame is an ambition in itself. I hear this all the time, teenage girls who tell me they want to "be famous". When I ask them "famous for what?" they look at me blankly. They really just want to Be Famous and one way of doing that is to get lucky like Kim Kardashian. She has made a lot of money and has a famous boyfriend. What's not to like?

Kardashian, though, is no Nobel prize-winning chemist and physicist like Marie Curie. Nor has she tended sick people, like Florence Nightingale. She is no Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF. Nor, in many ways, does she represent anything as admirable as a charity worker, a lollipop lady, a volunteer, or a teacher does.

Now, there seem to be too many women who have lost all ambition. The something-for-nothing generation is with us, and though it involves boys too, it is the lack of drive among girls that worries me most.

Cherie Blair made a withering attack on another segment of this easy escape lifestyle. Her target was the "yummy mummies", a more middle-class group than the teenage wannabe Kardashians, and, with all their advantages, even more culpable. If you can't become famous or successful without effort, went the Blairite accusation, why not marry a rich man, drive 4x4s, live in a big house, have kids, and then make them your project?

She said: "Every woman needs to be self-sufficient .... You hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me."

For my generation (I am in my mid-forties), there was no sense of just wanting to be "famous". I wanted to be all sorts of things – a nurse, an actress, a circus performer, a show jumper.

My fictitious heroines were people like George from Enid Blyton's Famous Five. She was a tomboy who could beat a boy at just about everything from running to making fires. I became fascinated by the suffragettes having watched Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady. The only film stars I was interested in were people like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, even then, they seemed mystical, magical creatures who existed only on screen. I couldn't imagine them having a real life.

As I grew up, my role models changed. As I read more widely, I fell in love with Jane Austen's heroines; Emma, Fanny Price, Lizzie Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. My mother steered me away from the Disneyised version of heroines, most of whom have been forced in to domestication in order to become loveable. Snow White spent her time cooking and cleaning for seven infantilised men. Cinderella swept the hearth. Beauty in Beauty and the Beast looked after her father then went to look after a Beast who she ended up kissing. All of these women were saved from impoverished drudgery by a prince. My mother told me, quite rightly, they were promoting the type of life she did not wish her daughter to lead – a life of drudgery only to be saved by a man on a white charger and then ... probably more drudgery.

So she introduced me to feminist literature. I read Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Susan Sontag, Erin Pizzey, Doris Lessing. I became ambitious, seeing my worth as being about what I achieved rather than how I looked. I was encouraged to be an independent woman, to aim to be the chair of the board rather than the secretary taking notes.

I loved my English teacher, Miss Quant, who was almost solely responsible for my love of Shakespeare, and my impossibly sophisticated French teacher. Jennifer Tipper ran the local am-dram group and inspired us all.

I will encourage my daughter to choose her role models from as wide a range as possible. I shall ask her to look towards a different type of role model. Not a Kim Kardashian or a Cheryl Cole but women who have achieved something; Aung San Suu Kyi, Hillary Clinton, Adele, Rebecca Adlington.

And there are great role models among us all, women whose lives show real purpose and achievement regardless of what they look like or the money they have. The common feature? They have worked hard, for themselves, and for others.

So come on, sisters. We're worth more than this. We should be ambitious and driven and we should by all means have role models. But let them be those truly worthy of our respect, rather than someone whose sole claim to fame is an admittedly beautiful bottom.

My parents and older sisters. I'm from a Bangladeshi family who lived in middle-class Ealing. They helped me straddle two cultures

Who first inspired you?

My parents and older sisters. I’m from a Bangladeshi family who lived in middle class Ealing. They helped me straddle two cultures.

Konnie Huq

TV presenter

Shannen Doherty of 90210 was my pre-teen idol. I felt I might look like her if I could defrizz my hair, and if my parents would let me get a bikini.

Emmy The Great

Musician

Mother Teresa inspired me with her ability to give and dedicate so completely, and my mother continues to inspire me, even in her Eighties.

Reshma Ashraf Mason

Cancer Vaccine Institute

One woman who is truly exceptional, who sums up all the best qualities in a human being, is Aung San Suu Kyi. Unquestionably. We should hold her in the highest regard.

Annie Lennox

Musician

Dawn French, Joanna Lumley and the Queen are very strong women who are difficult not to like, and have an amazing sense of dignity.

Sarah Beeney

Broadcaster

Anita Roddick, who founded the Body Shop, for her sheer determination to run a business and to create change in the world.

Jayne Cox

Body image expert

Mae West was a sex goddess, comedian, playwright, director, actress and novelist. She went to jail in defence of freedom of expression.

Kathy Lette

Novelist

JK Rowling, for her rags-to-riches story as a single mother, and Madonna and Katie Price for reinventing themselves.

Anna Kennedy

Hillcrest Autism Services

 

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