What is the media teaching girls about their role in society? Several things perhaps, but one of the more disturbing elements is the messages being sent on body image and sexualization.
It All Starts with Toddlers and Tiaras
Whether it is a two year old being pressured to do a strip tease and sexy dance with tassels hanging from her cone-shaped breasts or a three year old being dressed up as Julia Roberts' prostitute character from Pretty Woman, these beauty pageants and dance competitions are out of control. From a young age, girls are not only being exposed to highly sexualized media, but they are also being forced or encouraged to participate in it. I find it hard to believe that TLC continues to support this, that parents continue to force their children into it, and that people actually watch it on TV. Some of it is so bad that it should probably be classified as child pornography. Unfortunately, however, the definition of child pornography seems to revolve around how much skin is showing rather than what the children are doing (as long as it doesn't involve actual sexual acts).
Then there is the issue of French Vogue with a six year old made-up to look like an adult, with make-up, expensive jewelry, poses and pouts that are certainly not those of a child. On The Society Pages, Lisa Wade wrote:
The thing is: the adultification/sexualization of young girls is paralleled by a infantilization of adult women. This adds up to a conflation of women and children which serves to uphold prejudice against adult women and the exploitation of girls.
From clothing to advertising, from music videos to television shows, this trend is everywhere. It isn't just in the pages of adult fashion magazines. Walk into any Wal Mart or Target and you'll see clothing being marketed for young girls that is highly inappropriate for them. Of course, I'm sure you remember the Abercrombie "Push-up" bikini for girls or the kiddie crotchless underwear. Those are surprising and extreme examples, but they are much too common.
Then there are other slightly more subtle, but still pushing the limits, clothing items on sale. In the girls section (starting at Size 5, which my daughter was wearing at age 3) at Old Navy, they had tight fitting one-shoulder t-shirts and super short shorts, as well as the white romper pictured here. What happens if a girl bends over or gets wet playing in the water?
I don't have a any issues with young children being naked, as they often were at the water parks in Berlin when we lived there. But I do have a problem with them being dressed in clothing that positions them as sexual objects.
Can You Bend Over In That, Barbie?
Have you seen the new Barbie I Can Be line? I've written about it before. In addition to the usually princessy/fashion-focused dolls, Barbie is now promoting a variety of careers. Career options are great, but do we really want to teach our girls that teachers wear skirts so short that they can't bend over or that medical professionals wear skin-tight scrubs and six inch heels?
As assistant-manager at a pool when I was a teenager, I had to deliver the bad news to the lifeguarding team that they could not wear bikinis on the job unless they were the sport-style bikinis. Anything that would fall off if you had to jump in to save someone was out of bounds. It really should have gone without saying for those girls...as it should for the toy designers at Mattel. If they really want Barbie to be a role model for girls, couldn't they put her in realistic career clothing?
In a post about a poll dancing doll that had parents everywhere appalled, AJ from Thingamababy wrote:
Parents scream and shout about overt overnight excesses [the poll dancing doll] while ignoring the slow indoctrination of their children into a shallow pop culture fantasy world that values personal beauty over academics and character. Sex over substance.
Even Dora, who once was a rough and tumble adventure-loving girl is being transitioned into a more fashion-conscious tween with a girl gang instead of a fun-loving monkey as a side-kick. Although she hasn't been overly sexualized even in the tween version, it is still problematic as younger and younger girls will want to move toward the "older" Dora. On Viva La Feminista, Veronica wrote:
The outrage is not just about Dora, it is because we know that Dora is the safe one. The good girl. The toy and cartoon that we haven't had to monitor. Any tampering with our Dora rocks our world. If Dora isnt' safe, what the hell will we do?
The outrage is powered by pent up outrage over the sexualization of our daughters, of their dolls and their clothing.
The outrage is far more than just tween-ifying Dora. It is about all the other small things that inch our daughters closer to 90210 and further away from cuddling with us on the couch with the Backyardigans. It'll happen in its own time...if society let it happen in its own time.
Like I said in my post on the pinkification of girlhood, it isn't one image, one toy, or one experience that is the problem. As AJ and Veronica explain, is the continual, pervasive sexualization of girls and women in the media that is the problem. It is that societal push to turn little girls into adult women far too soon.
Transitioning Into Healthy Sexuality
Have you seen the CBC Documentary Sext Up Kids? It was shown a couple of weeks ago on DocZone and is now available in full online on the CBC website for Canadian viewers. The documentary shows how growing up in a hyper-sexualized culture hurts our children and presents some pretty shocking stories and statistics about what tweens and teens are doing.
In an interview, documentary filmmaker Maureen Palmer explained where the trend to sexualize girls at younger and younger ages has come from:
I think it has come from a few places. First: the marketing industry. If you’re in grade 5, you idolize the kids in grade 8. The marketing industry has shrewdly capitalized on this innate childhood yearning to “be like the big kids,” and there’s even an acronym for it: “KAGOY,” kids are getting older younger. So marketers design clothing and toys that appeal to 11 year-olds whose big sisters are 16, who emulate Rihanna, Britney, Beyonce, Paris and the Kardashian sisters. 11 year-olds wear them, and soon savvy marketers see 9 year olds who want to emulate 11 year-olds, not only in how they dress, but also with their choice of dolls. Case in point, “the Monster High Dolls,” which Peggy Orenstein, the author of the bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, refers to as “Sesame Street-walkers.” These dolls even wear thong underwear and are outrageously sexualized. They look like hookers. But they are huge sellers. Think the other critical player here is the porn industry, where the demand for ever younger porn stars has escalated enormously. Sites like jailbait.com get millions of hits. And women in the porn industry who are actually over the age of 18 are now often portrayed in pigtails, baby dolls and completely shaved pubic areas. The younger looking, the better.
Sexualization is a problem, but I don't think that pressuring girls to wait until marriage is the solution. I think it is important to help our daughters transition from girlhood into confident, self-assured women in their own time, not at a pace dictated by the media. As I read in the description of a YouTube video on the Sexualization of Girls in the Media, "there's a difference between owning your sexuality and being sexualized." Peggy Orenstein adds to this:
Girls need to understand that sexuality is something that comes from within and connects a girl to herself and to her desire and to her needs and her wants and is ultimately empowering as she gets older whereas sexualisation is the performance of all that and it’s a performance of sexuality and a performance of sexual entitlement that actually disconnects them from that stronger external sense of self.
As parents, where do we start? I think we need to talk to our daughters and sons about the messages that the media is sending them about women, body image, and sex, much in the same way that we deconstruct the messages about fast food and other issues. I think encouraging and even forcing them to think about it through conversations at home, media literacy courses in schools or empowerment workshops or projects that require them to look critically at what is happening around them is essential. The YWCA in Montreal has a guide to early sexualization for parents of preteen girls covering everything from body image to fuck friends to pornography. These are starting points, but they are not a solution.
Both our boys and our girls need to be taught about the messages that the media is sending to girls and need to understand the damage that it does. They need to know the consequences, when they choose to take take and send that nude picture to the guy they like. They need to know the consequences, when they think about forwarding that nude picture to their ten best friends. They need to understand the consequences when they offer blow jobs for money. They need to understand the consequences when they pay for blow jobs. They need to understand this and so much more and teaching them that will only be that much harder if we encourage or allow unchecked influence of damaging toys, clothes and media when they are little.
How do you handle issues of sexualization of girls with your daughters? With your sons?
This is the second in a series of four posts looking critically at the way society, corporations and media influence the role girls and women are expected to play in society. The posts are written by me (Annie @ PhD in Parenting) and are generously sponsored by Pigtail Pals.