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Girls Growing Up Too Fast

When did 7 become the new 16? For today's young girls, the pressure to look and act hot is greater than ever. Here's help cooling things down.
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The Sexy-Girl Syndrome

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.