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.