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
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
Professor Jane Close Conoley is Dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of
Education at the University of California at Santa