Sexy girls: Too much too soon?

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2013-03-06

By Lyba Spring

I don’t think I was more than six years old in the 1950s when, with my parents’ blessing, I entertained  Muskoka Lodge vacationers with my imitation of Marilyn Monroe, a bra stuffed with toilet paper, singing, “’s Wonderful” from my glossy lips.

Today we observe with horror little girls grinding and lip synching to online music videos dressed in their very own thongs.

Children are sexual beings from the moment they are born. Almost immediately, parents act on their sexuality by imposing gender roles. We expect pre-school children to explore gender roles by dressing up; but girls are doing more than dressing up. Their sexual development is being hijacked: department stores offer them alluring clothing and sexy toys; the media invite them to imitate the porn-style dance moves of their favourite stars. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. The early (or precocious) sexualization of young girls, also referred to as “hypersexualization,” is a hot topic in both the popular media and recent academic research.

But then, wasn’t some version of it always there, lurking beneath the surface of the adulation of the classic Hollywood movie stars? One might argue that the difference between wanting to look and act like Marilyn Monroe or Christina Aguilera is the amount of flesh shown and the sexual acts portrayed (although there was no click of the mouse in the 1950s and ‘60s or mobile devices facilitating the ubiquitous spread of explicit sexual images).

Its current incarnation may be particularly troubling to women who have reaped the benefits of feminism and who had hoped for a more positive vision of sexuality for their own daughters.

Will this generation of girls be able to grow up to revel in attractive and even sexy clothes without recrimination and fear of violence? Or will the messages of early sexualization lure them into intense body scrutiny and excessive dieting? Will fearful parents tend to become more repressive towards girls’ sexual expression? And, ultimately, does this early sexualization lead to aggressive and unwanted attention to girls’ sexy personas and even give pedophiles permission to see little girls as accessible sexual playthings?

It’s as if contemporary society were grooming them for something. Or maybe it’s all about the money.

Sexual objectification

The fact that sex sells is cliché. Advertizing, a major player in mainstream media, features images of women that would have passed as soft porn a few short decades ago. Who gains power, profit and influence—and at whose expense?

Toronto sexual health educator Karen B.K. Chan, owner and trainer at her company Fluid Exchange, says that sexual objectification is part of the “commodification of sex.” With changing sex roles comes the empowerment of women; but, she says, some believe the sexualization of women by women means acquiring power. They would be taking power by becoming “more and more desirable sex objects (mainly for men)” without questioning that so-called power. “Men continue to be valued and given power; and women continue to be valued for how valuable they are to men.”

The Réseau québecois d’action pour la santé des femmes has focused a huge amount of work on the topic of this sexualization of girls in Canada—raising sexual objectification in its analysis of the fashion industry and its effect on body image. The pressure to be slim and wear size zero results in dissatisfaction with body size. Although there is a significant obesity problem in Canada, 37% of girls in Grade 9 and 40% in Grade 10 perceived themselves as too fat according to a 2008 study cited by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Even among students of normal-weight (based on BMI), 19% believed that they were too fat, and 12% of students reported attempting to lose weight.

Pornography is part of the problem, according the RQASF blog. The industry currently imposes its culture on advertizing and media as well as the manufacturing industry for teens and tweens. RQASF maintains that the purpose of these sexual images is to normalize them.

The American Psychological Association (APA) also examines the objectification of women in its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, concluding these are the “models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.” Girls are encouraged to buy into their objectification and accompanying loss of power, with the operative word being “buy.” This process may result in discouraging girls and young women from challenging their less powerful status. According to a study published in Psychological Science, “women who were primed to evaluate themselves based on their appearance and sexual desirability had a decreased motivation to challenge gender-based inequalities and injustices.” (Read more).