Psychologists, educators, and many parents have sounded an alarm that our society is doing a very bad thing to little girls. We are sexualizing them as young children through media, clothing choices, video games, and unfortunate parenting practices. By sexualizing we mean that we’re teaching little girls that: (a) their only value comes from their sexual appeal or behavior, (b) only physical attractiveness is related to sexuality, (c) they are things for others’ sexual use, and; (d) that despite being only in kindergarten through third grade they should be thinking about sexual interactions with others.
Do you doubt this is happening?
Consider popular dolls that come dressed in black leather miniskirts, feather boas, and thigh-high boots. Check out clothing stores that sell thongs with printed slogans such as “eye candy” or “wink wink” to seven- to 10-year-old girls. Look at some popular video games and see what the female characters wear and do. Ponder the effects of offering plastic surgery to girls under twelve years old. Also, consider how adult models often “dress up” as young school girls as they model revealing lingerie or other clothing.
Before brushing this off as a product of 21st-century culture that does no harm, think about this: Although more research is clearly needed, we already have evidence that early sexualization of girls has negative effects on girls in terms of their academic, physical, social, and emotional lives. Dressing a kindergartener up to look like the latest teen celebrity may seem cute to parents, but such choices send chilling messages to young girls.
We know that early sexualization reduces girls’ probability of choosing careers in mathematics, science, and engineering. We also know that early pressures to be sexually alluring to boys increase the chances of eating disorders, depression, and shame about body image. Even as adults, women who have been the victims of inappropriate sexualization report difficulties coming to terms with healthy sexuality because of being over concerned about unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness and depression.
What should we do?
First, parents must monitor what their girls watch on TV and exert appropriate control about toys, video games, and other forms of media. The mere presence of a parent to explain a family’s values about clothing, behavior, and sexuality reduces the negative effects of the media. In other words, watch TV with your little girl and explain to her that real women don’t have to look like the models she sees on TV or in magazines. In fact, the models are Photoshopped to look that way, as evidenced in this short film.
Second, involve your little girl in athletics and other activities that focus on intellectual or physical challenge. Girls who are actively engaged in athletic teams are far less likely to experiment with tobacco, alcohol, and early sexual interactions. Girls whose interests in science fiction, poetry, horseback riding, or chess are honored and supported by their parents develop strong identities that are separate from physical attractiveness.
Third, talk to your little girl about healthy development with a focus on character and abilities rather than mere physical attractiveness. It’s an uphill battle to put a perspective on inner and outer beauty, but it is a vital challenge for all parents to assume. There is a trash culture surrounding our children that requires parents’ to step forward with resolve.
Finally, expect resistance. Every child’s job is to grow up. Most children want to do this as quickly as possible. Every parent’s job is to support growing up at the right speed and with the right level of risk management. We can’t protect our children from every danger (as our own parents could not do for us), but we can be vigilant about the messages that are being sent, relentlessly, to our little girls. We can dismiss their demands for inappropriate clothing, toys, games, and activities because we are the grown ups. “Because I said so,” is a good reason.
The stakes are very high. No caring parent would condone outright sexual abuse of their little daughter. The effects of early sexualization are chillingly similar, however, to actual sexual abuse. Allowing our children to stay children for the right amount of time is a great gift. Give that life long gift to your little girl.
Professor Jane Close Conoley is Dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Santa Barbara.