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The job description for parent says you prep yourself for the dicey stuff kids are likely to ask for. So I was ready for the day my daughter would beg for a fashion doll of notoriously unrealistic proportions, or even for one of those skimpily dressed Bratz dolls. Instead, last fall my 7-year-old freaked me out a whole different way-by begging for a bra. "Two girls in my class have them," she argued.
Skeptical that she'd gotten her facts straight, I checked out a local children's store. Yikes! They had a whole assortment of flirty bras and panties perfectly sized for second-graders. Staring at those crazy underthings, and at the body-glitter tubes on the counter, something creepy dawned on me. Today's girls don't just want to own a hot-looking doll, they want to be one.
Maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked. After all, my daughter and her friends are more likely to worship teen heroes like Troy and Gabriella from the High School Musical movies than to expend energy adoring cuddly cartoon characters like the Care Bears. And these same kids are the ones shaking their little booties when the Pussycat Dolls come on the radio, singing, "Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?"
Clearly, something's going on, so much so that the American Psychological Association (APA) recently convened a task force on girls' sexualization. "There's a real syndrome happening, and it's picking up speed," says Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, who chaired the APA group. "Even little girls are now feeling they should look and act alluring." Her committee found that this is harmful to girls on several levels.
"The core issue is what they feel valued for," Zurbriggen explains. "It's as though factors like whether they're smart or funny or kind or talented at something like sports or art get erased." And their self-esteem suffers for it. "The images their idols present are so idealized, most girls can't attain them. That makes them feel bad about their own bodies, and this can eventually lead to anxiety and depression," Zurbriggen says. Preoccupation with their "hot-o-meter" score can even hurt their school performance. "A girl's mind becomes literally so full of worries about how she looks and what other people are thinking, she doesn't have enough energy left to focus on learning," says Zurbriggen.
How did things get that way, and what can parents do to counteract the situation? For answers, we have to look beyond the kiddie lingerie aisle.
The sexy-girl trend didn't start overnight. "I trace it to the mid-1980s, when children's television was deregulated, allowing TV shows to market products to kids," says Diane Levin, PhD, of Wheelock College in Boston and co-author of So Sexy So Soon (Ballantine Books). Companies noticed girls' love for ultra-feminine programs and their product tie-ins, and played it to the max. In the flush 1990s the media pushed harder, with the teen dial moving more toward sexy with sitcoms like Saved by the Bell.
Nowadays, "programs aimed at my daughter feature kids twice her age," complains Lisa Rinkus, of Newton, Massachusetts, mom of 9-year-old Elizabeth. "There's stuff like Wizards of Waverly Place, where girls dress up and go on dates." Even cartoons have become sexier. A recent study released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that female animated characters wear less clothing than male ones. And the current rash of reality TV shows like America's Next Top Model and My Super Sweet 16 also fuel the fire.
The media onslaught extends to cyberspace as well, with an explosion of kids' interactive Web sites tied to TV shows like iCarly and Hannah Montana. "They push girls to further identify with these older, more mature girls," says Levin. And that's just the nice sites: One called "Miss Bimbo" gives girls a nearly naked doll to look after and urges them to score points redeemable for plastic surgery and skimpy clothes.
Still, sex-tinged kids' TV has been around for a couple of decades. So why are girls today more precocious than just five years ago? Because a whole other pop culture avalanche has hit, experts say. For starters, we've got tons of teen idols now, including Miley Cyrus (the real-life Hannah Montana) and Demi Lovato, star of the Disney TV movie Camp Rock. "Even little kids look up to them," says M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect (Overlook Press).
These teen stars and their characters may seem mild (say, compared with the Britneys, Lindsays, and Jessicas in the headlines or even the adolescents on your block), but much of what they do and say is still over the top for tweens. "When younger girls watch them they see ways of behaving, looking, and feeling that would otherwise be outside their world," Levin says.
And now teen idols are also prime paparazzi fodder. As their personal slipups are relentlessly captured and widely publicized, even their littlest fan's consciousness is being raised in ways her parents hoped wouldn't happen for years. Donna Miller of Summit, New Jersey, faced this recently. Her daughter Lucie, 8, loves the show Zoey 101, whose star, Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney's sis), gave birth earlier this year at 17. "I tried to explain what was wrong with the whole situation," says Donna. "Lucie's answer was, 'But she and her boyfriend love each other, and you said love is important!' I think I communicated our family values about sex and babies in a way that didn't confuse Lucie. But she's so young. I'm not sure she understood all the nuances."
Certainly, fawning coverage of the birth didn't help clarify things for young fans. One tabloid cover featured a glowing picture of the teenage Spears cuddling with her daughter, calling motherhood "the best feeling in the world." Parents are still the main influence on their daughters, but kids have got to be confused when they're bombarded with contradictory messages.
If teen idols are a trap for young girls, it's partly because their princess obsession laid the groundwork. In 2007 sales of Disney princess products totaled $4 billion. "To parents, the princesses seem relatively wholesome," says Levin, "but they do convey the message that you should spend a lot of time, energy, and money on looking pretty." What's more insidious is the way girls use them. "Give a girl a princess-type doll and she often doesn't invent ways to play with it," says Levin. "Instead, she'll act out a fairy tale script, having learned that the princess should be beautiful and seductive and catch the prince." The more time a girl plays this way, the more she'll focus on looks and coquettish behavior, and the less time she'll spend doing the open-ended activities kids need. "It puts girls on a conveyor belt to early sexualization," Levin says.
And merchandizing linked to girls' idols doesn't stop with dolls. According to a report by the NPD Group, girls 8 to 12 years old now spend $500 million a year on beauty products of all kinds, including those endorsed by their idols. Then there are the flirty fashions. "Where are the age-appropriate clothes?" asks Marie Ortiz of San Antonio, mom of 8-year-old Karina. "Even the kids' fashions at mass retailers look like they're for mini Paris Hiltons." It's a coast-to-coast lament as mothers of girls shop among racks of child-size swimsuits with padded chests and slinky underwear for 8-year-olds.
Of course, when it comes to the 7-going-on-16 phenomenon, it's easy to point a finger of blame everywhere else, but we also have to take a hard look at ourselves. It's not that parents want to shirk being gatekeepers. "There's just so much sex around, it's easy to stop noticing and drawing the line," Durham explains. But we've got to try.
Forget about overreacting. Sending your daughter to school in overalls, clutching your old prairie-skirted Holly Hobbie doll is like putting a giant "L" on her forehead and a "kick me" sign on her back. The idea is to help her live in the real world while preserving her innocence and honoring your family's morals. Try these tactics:
Personally, I'm taking all of this advice and using it with my daughter. I've been questioning what we're seeing on her favorite TV shows, as well as her fervent desire, sympathetic though I may feel, to emulate her fashion-forward classmates right down to their underwear.
And in case you're wondering whether I got her that bra, I'll admit I thought about it. But then I said no. "That's for when you're older," I told her. Then I took her to our community rec department and signed her up for our town's soccer league. Five weeks later I stood at the edge of a field, screaming like crazy as she scored her very first goal.
That, not a bra, is the kind of support young girls really need.
While girls are getting trapped in a sexual pressure cooker, boys seem to steer clear of the worst of it. "I have 8-year-old boy-girl twins, and I see a huge difference," says Donna Miller of Summit, New Jersey. "My son doesn't feel the need to wear certain clothes like my daughter does." But there are some uncomfortable dynamics emerging. "I notice boys talking about girls being 'hot' earlier than they used to," says Richard Gallagher of the Parenting Institute of NYU. None of which, sadly, surprises him or other experts. "As girls are dressing provocatively at young ages, it's sparking the sexual inquisitiveness of younger boys," says Scott Haltzman, MD, a Brown University psychiatrist who specializes in gender issues.
Diane Levin, PhD, of Wheelock College, also sees negative sexual standards and messages in boys' toys and heroes. "The muscles on action toys have been getting bigger," she says. "It makes boys feel like they have to be rough instead of affectionate or tender. But those gentle qualities are what they'll need for developing good relationships in the future." Furthermore, says Gallagher, a sexually charged kids' culture can make it hard for a young boy to befriend a female classmate. "If he's afraid his buddies and the girl's friends are going to taunt them, saying, 'Ooh, what are you guys up to?' he often decides it's not worth it," he explains.
The solutions? They're not so different from what they are for girls. Tone down the sex-stereotype toys and be selective about what your sons watch on TV.
"So many music videos show a guy surrounded by lots of girls, which sends boys the message that sexy equals cool," Haltzman says. And don't automatically assume your son would never hang out with a girl from his class. "At least suggest it and see what he says," advises Gallagher. It could help him like and respect girls as individuals.
Originally published in the November 29, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.