by Avital Norman Nathman
Last summer, Anne G. Sabo and her family were enjoying a local public pool in their southern Minnesota neighborhood, when she was approached by a staff member who instructed her to cover up her three year old daughter, who had been splashing around sans bathing suit top. Sabo was taken aback, wondering why her toddler, who had nothing more to cover up than the little boy playing next to her, was being targeted by the pool’s staff. In a letter to the editor which was published in her hometown’s paper, Sabo took the pool’s staff to task for essentially sexualizing her little girl, and effectively creating scandal where there was none:
“Giving young girls the message that they need to cover up even before they show any signs of breast development is to perpetuate our culture’s warped attitudes to young girls’ bodies and sexuality. We have the opportunity and responsibility as parents and as a public to support our community’s girls to feel comfortable with their budding bodies.”
Fueled by this experience, Sabo has since written much more on the topic of sexualization and young girls, and she’s certainly not alone. From parents to experts, more attention has been given to just how and why our society has allowed for the sexualization of young girls to occur so brazenly.
The American Psychological Association (APA) understands just how serious the situation is, and has created a task force to study it. Their report goes into exact detail about what exactly sexualization of girls is, and how both parents and girls can combat it. According to the APA, sexualization is set apart from the notion of healthy sexuality, and must be differentiated as such, since the consequences and results of sexualization can be severe. The APA notes that sexualization occurs when:
● a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
● a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
● a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
● sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Find yourself in a kids’ clothing store and you will be confronted with mini skirts and push-up bikini tops that would feel more at home in the adult section of a department store. Flip on the television and odds are you will land on shows aimed at kids that portrays girls (fairies, princesses, etc...) with come-hither, “bedroom” eyes, hyper-sexualized body types, and clothing that seems more fit for the club than a cartoon. Browse through the toy aisle and find yourself faced with Bratz and Monster High dolls, pink purses with lipstick, cell phones, and credit cards. Taken individually, each of these things might cause frustration, anger, or an eye-roll or two. But together? They are symptomatic of a much larger, systemic problem within our society.
One woman is who taking the challenge of sexualization head on is Melissa Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, an online store and blog that focuses on “redefining childhood.” After navigating life with two young children, Wardy found herself exasperated at the messages being made about and for children, especially girls, that were only compounded by the lack of actual choices when it came to things like clothing, toys, and media. Since starting her company in 2009, Wardy has actively worked to provide alternatives to things like shorts aimed at young girls that say “Juicy” on the back, or crotchless panties sold at a kids’ clothing store.
Beyond clothing, the intersection of media and marketing is where most of the challenges occur as images are shared and then reinforced via toys. Even when there’s a glimmer of hope, the notion of sexualization is not far behind. Wardy notes, “There has been much celebration over Disney/Pixar's new "Brave" heroine Merida, and her non-traditional princess, I'll-have-more-of-that-girl-power ways, yet Mattel still managed to create a doll of her with "come hither" make-up lined eyes and sexy, vamped up hair and lips. [...] We don't need our little girls focused on being sexy.”
Wardy’s point about not wanting little girls to be focused on being sexy is key. One result of sexualizing young girls is that we rob them of their childhood. Companies that market to children in a way that is much more fitting for adults (if at all) are taking adult ideals of beauty and sex and foisting them upon young girls, who should instead be running around in bathing suits that allow them to swim and play like their male peers.
While many parents understand the severity of sexualization of young girls, others tend to dismiss it as just a small part of childhood, perhaps not understanding the very real ramifications. Part of the APA’s study was to look at the impact that early sexualization has on the development of girls. The well-documented results are frightening and include a range of effects, of the physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral variety. Over-exposure to sexualization can create lasting effects on girls, from low self esteem to poor body image, eating disorders, poor school performances, depression, anxiety, and a skewed and unhealthy view of their own sexuality. Wardy, who is currently writing a book that delves into this topic, reminds parents that, “sexualization leaves girls with the very unhealthy message that their worth is their beauty and their sex, to the exclusion of other more meaningful characteristics. Sexualization turns girls into sex objects, taking away from them who they are as a whole being.”
So what is a parent to do? It can feel daunting to raise a young girl in a culture that has messages of sexualization woven in from many different sources. From television screens, magazines, clothing lines, and toy aisles, it can be hard for both parents and children to escape the seemingly-constant barrage of sexualization when it comes to girls.
Wardy, who deals with these issues on a daily basis, suggests that parents start questioning what they’ve been taught is the status quo:
“Parents need to question everything: Why is that doll's make-up and outfit making you uneasy? Why is the backless, off-the-shoulder dress on your five year old neighbor girl seem off and maybe too grown up? Why does it bother you that in so many animated movies the female characters do little more than use their wily feminine ways to manipulate and seduce male characters? Why is this little girls' dance class doing moves like that? Parents need to start listening to that little inside voice that is telling them, "this is a little off" or "this is a little too grown up". Children are not grown ups, and when we impress upon them adult sexuality we interfere with the child's right to develop their own healthy sense of sexuality, we sexualize them.”
One of the most important things to remember is to keep an age-appropriate dialogue going with your children. While we, as parents, want to protect our children from everything - and this of course includes sexualization - we also need to provide them with the tools to protect and speak up for themselves. Explain to both your daughters and sons why certain clothing may be too “grown up” for them, or why a certain TV show or movie might not be sending a healthy message.
While we may not be able to protect our children from all the messages they will absorb out in the world, we can do our best to provide them with the strength, confidence, and security by encouraging their thoughts and actions instead of how they look or dress all the time. Create balance in their lives by offering positive and healthy examples of what it means to be a girl or boy. Champion, as Wardy as coined, the notion of redefining childhood - where girls can be carefree children and not forced to grow up before their time.
In addition to Melissa Wardy’s company, Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, check out these other websites, books, and companies that offer alternatives in a world saturated with questionable messages aimed at both young girls and boys:
A Mighty Girl - “The world's largest collection of books and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls.” An excellent resource to find various forms of entertainment that will inspire and encourage girls, rather than weigh them down with tired stereotypes and questionable messages.
New Moon Girls - An advertising-free magazine and website aimed at girls and dedicated “to helping girls discover and honor their true selves.” Offering material for girls, from girls, New Moon Girls strives to be an alternative by providing a safe space where readers can find all sorts of opportunities for self-discovery.
So Sexy, So Soon - Author Diane E. Levin’s blog where she took the overall message of her book, So Sexy, So Soon and created a site that offers articles, resources, and more on raising healthy children in a “mad world.”
SPARK Summit - This organization began in response to The Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. SPARK engages girls as part of the solution, rather than protecting them from the problem, using education, advocacy, and coalition building.
Shaping Youth - Shaping Youth takes deep dives and critical analysis to new levels as it uses the power of the media to create positive change between media, marketing, and the influence on youth.
A former teacher and lifetime learner, Avital Norman Nathman is a play-at-home mama, freelance writer, wife and feminist (and not necessarily in that order). When not gardening, cooking or dancing around the house, you can catch her musing about motherhood and feminism at www.TheMamafesto.com.