Can We Keep Our Little Girls Little? the Sexualization of the Pre-teen Set

The Washington Post Health section had a big article today on the effect of the objectification of women, and the harm it does. Increasingly, marketing targets younger and younger audiences with merchandise that is in questionable taste: what pre-teen needs a French maid outfit, for crying out loud? What possible message can we be sending our children when that sort of play is encouraged? Why on earth does the ‘tween set, ages 7-12, need THONG UNDERWEAR?

It’s not a question of youth emulating adults. It’s a marketing tactic that tries to sell children the idea that they are nearly equal to adults, and the things that adults do are ok for kids to do, too. Consider, too, the kind of sexuality being consumed by children today: name one healthy, sexual relationship in pop media culture? What is the cost of all of this?

Goodbye to Girlhood, by Stacy Weiner for the Washington Post, offers an extraordinary look into the risks we take…

While little research to date has documented the effect of sexualized images specifically on young girls, the APA authors argue it is reasonable to infer harm similar to that shown for those 18 and older; for them, sexualization has been linked to “three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.”

Parents wonder what they can do to counteract such an extraordinary influx of inappropriate messages… fellow mom Sally had this wisdom to share:

My daughter’s 4.5, too, so we’re just feeling our way through this, but our instincts are:

1) Limit TV exposure until children can decode the messages: Watch TV with your child and discuss what you see. Depend on videos and shows you approve of (especially those without ads and product placement).

2) Provide a ready supply of heroines: Wilma Rudolph, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Rachel Carson are all the subjects of kids’ biographies. Men can make fine role models, too, if you discuss what wonderful qualities your daughter has in common with the person. Talk about these people as if they were part of daily life in order to make them as real and vivid as Disney princesses, if not more so. Incorporate them in make-believe.

3) Feed her fantasy needs: Fiction is full of spunky girls. Consult your librarian or the American Library Association website. Books have illustrations (or not), which leave lots for room for imagination, so she’s less apt to get bogged down in details like lip glass.

4) Define beauty deeply: I like to tell our daughter her body’s beautiful because it’s strong, and it’s strong because she practices dancing, biking, whatever. We try to keep the emphasis on what she accomplishes, what she puts effort into, not what she just is, in order to build her sense of her own efficacy.

5) Make it clear that she’s not the center of the universe. If bigger issues (homelessness, disarmament, and environmental sustainability, whatever your particular bent) matter to you, these will give your child a much bigger framework in which to place her personal interests. This does NOT mean scaring small children with facts that even adults find hard to face, but rather communicating positive messages about our responsibility to our fellow humans and our world. Help her look beyond herself.

and, she adds, “Examine your own notions of beauty: I delight in all the ways men and women have fun with their appearance, but it dismays me when the media makes any of us feel we have to alter ourselves to be attractive. Keep in mind that we adults are not immune to these messages, either.”

Childhood is a magical place and time… I hope we can preserve it for our children as long as possible. Let’s not be in such a hurry to ‘grow up’.

Growing up, Mothering, sexuality

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