Luring Preteens With Red Meat

"Cool to be real!" -- it's the chirpy slogan, and name, of a new Web site for preteen girls that's chock-full of self-esteem-boosting messages and helpful tips on leading a healthy lifestyle. What could be wrong with that?

Well, maybe the fact that the site is actually a thinly cloaked advertorial for the joys of eating beef, brought to budding carnivores everywhere by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. This is an I-got-a-cow-to-sell-ya sales job that insults the intelligence of the average 12-year-old.

At cool-2b-real.com, you can learn about how "real girls" have "strong bodies and strong minds" and "friends who understand, friends who care, and friends who keep you real." Friends like these nice cattlemen who'd like to get you on their ground-chuck gravy train from ages 8 to 80! Unearthed by the bloggers over at memepool, the site is a none-too-subtle ploy to turn sugar-and-spice little girls into red-meat chompin' teens.

Michelle Peterson, a spokesperson for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which launched the site in December 2002, says it's "for girls, 8 to 12 years old. The site really gives them information on how to adopt lifelong healthful habits at a critical time when they're growing and becoming more independent. We wanted to provide an opportunity for girls to get some nutritional tips, and to help them adopt some healthful habits."

"Cool to be real?" Translation: "Cool to eat beef."

The site's "real girl" poll asks, "What type of beef do you most like to eat with your friends?" Possible answers: Steak? Tacos? Burgers? Subs? With 15,279 votes counted, 73 percent went for tacos, with steak a distant runner-up at 13 percent.

The site offers recipes for such red-meat delicacies as Beef on Bamboo, which calls for a pound of smoked beef sausage, and Beef Taco and Cheese Pockets. Damn the childhood obesity epidemic, full Cheese Pocket-eating speed ahead!

"I think that the site is fine if you aim to be really fat and really constipated," said Andrew Butler, a campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He sees Cool to be Real as "directly in response to the growing popularity of vegetarianism. The greatest number of new vegetarians are teenage girls."

Granted, PETA runs its own Web site to shamelessly recruit kids to its vegan, animal-rights cause, but whatever your position is on frog dissection, at least PETA's up front about what they're selling.

The cattlemen's site, for all its exhortations to girls about the benefits of being "real," is less forthright. It dresses up its pro-meat messages with an extra helping of you-go-girl pluck: "Remember 'real' girls aren't perfect. They don't worry about being the skinniest, prettiest, smartest and most athletic," counsels one page. Pass the tacos!

So, are the prepubescent girls who visit the site actually falling in love with red meat, when they catch their breath while reflecting on their own inherent self-worth?

It's hard to tell. But here's a clue. When prompted by the site to list their personal strengths, the girls offer up commendable traits, such as "can play the cello pretty well," "can write stories that make people cry," "I can read a big book in three days," "I can stay outside forever," "I'm very patriotic and I don't liter (sic)" and "I'm very tall for my age.

Not a single girl responds, "I can finish a whole prime rib, all by myself!"

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon Technology.

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