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Why Are We Sexualizing Young Girls?

By       Message Elayne Clift     Permalink
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            It may be true that eighty is the new sixty and one hundred is the new dead.   But such innovative formulas aren't funny when looked at from the other end of the lifespan.   Why, for example, is six the new sexy and twelve the new twenty?  

            Walk through any mall in America and I guarantee you'll see some disturbing trends in merchandising.   Children's stores now sport infant wear that says things like "Sexy" on their six months' size undershirts while T-shirts for the pre-teen set offer slogans like "Eye Candy" and thong underwear with "Who needs credit cards?" scrawled across the crotch.   There are push-up bras and pull-in pants and high-heeled sandals for eight-year olds.   Several years ago Tesco (the British version of K-Mart) actually launched a Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit, a play set meant to help young girls "unleash the sex kitten inside."   Concerned parents got the play set removed from the toy section of the megastore, but Tesco kept the product on the market.

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            Take a look at advertising too.   Younger and younger girls are now the target audience for increasingly sexualized sales pitches for everything from fancy footwear to cheesy cosmetics.    Messages underscore sexuality and the need to be "hot", thin, scantily clad, overly made-up, and preferably white.   All this while avoiding the behavior of a "slut."

            Writing in her book The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Co About It, M. Gigi Durham points out that Marilyn Monroe was twenty-seven years old when she starred in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," making her America's most well-known sex symbol.   Sophia Loren was twenty-three in "Desire Under the Elms."   In contrast, Brooke Shields was twelve when she played a child prostitute in "Pretty Baby," and Jodie Foster was fourteen when she appeared in "Taxi Driver."

            Writing in The Guardian last year, Durham said "increasingly, young girls are seen as valid participants in a public culture of sex. " The highly sexual poses imply they are Lolitas -" knowledgeable, wanton, seductive.   It sends a message that little girls should be viewed as sexy."

            Lolita, of course, was not a seductress.   She was the innocent adolescent victim of prurient pedophilia by her stepfather, Humbert Humbert, in Nabakov's acclaimed novel.   "The Lolita Effect" says Tana Ganeva writing in AlterNet "has become the way our culture and our corporate media have constructed little "Lolitas" by sexualizing them and constructing them as legitimate sexual actors when they aren't."

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            Some analysts see this disturbing trend as a backlash against feminism.   At a time of increased economic power and autonomy among educated women, men, they say, feel threatened.   Sexy little girls reassure them that the ideal woman is docile, compliant, obedient -" and one-dimensional.

            One organization speaking out about the need to protect girls from messages encouraging them to become sexy too soon is the American Psychological Association.   An APA task force found that the sexualization of girls and young women is pervasive, with sexy dolls being marketed to four-year olds, and cosmetics directed at young girls. The task force also cited pornographic and degrading music and videos, as well as sexualized advertising.   "The consequences of the sexualization of girls in the media today are very real," says psychologist Eileen Zurbriggen, chair of the APA task force, citing low self-esteem, shame, anxiety and self-image problems.

            Diane Levin, a Boston-based educator and author of So Sexy, So Soon:   The Sexualization of Childhood in Commercial Culture, says the problem isn't that kids are learning about sex; it's what they are learning about relationships.   Boys, she told an interviewer, learn to be violent while girls are taught to be sexy.   "They're not learning to treat others as people, they're learning to treat others as objects."

            There are things parents can do to combat be-sexy messaging.   For one thing, they can avoid getting caught up in the culture of sexual commercialism themselves.   They can support products and companies that promote positive images of girls and boycott those that don't.   They can let manufacturers and advertisers as well as TV and film producers how they feel about their offerings.   They can discuss what's going on with their kids (girls and boys) and encourage them to focus on sports or other activities that emphasize skills and abilities over physical appearance.

            When I was a kid we couldn't wear pants to school let alone tube tops and miniskirts that "let it all hang out."   Our gym suits were beyond ugly, all in a move to de-sex us.   Love scenes in movies consisted of a goodnight kiss before Mom and Dad got into separate beds.   I'm not advocating we regress to 1950s ridiculousness about sex, and I don't think the "experts" are either.   They're just making a plea for good taste, and asking parents to watch out so that their kids don't feel like an aberration for wanting a childhood free from the kind of pressures that poor Lolita didn't even know were coming her way.

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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