Sexy girls: Too much too soon?

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2013-03-06

Feminists raised the issues of sexual objectification and power in the 1960s. Caroline Heldman’s contemporary analysis is reminiscent of Jean Kilbourne’s original 1979 version of the documentary Killing Us Softly. We don’t seem to have “come a long way, baby” at all. Only now it is “babies” that are being targeted. The fashion and toy industries have been seeking new markets in the same way the tobacco and alcohol industries target adolescents. Magazines traditionally marketing to adult women are now turning their attention to teens and tweens. The APA report mentions Bratz dolls dressed in miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas, and stores selling thongs sized for seven to ten year-olds—pushing girls into the adult world.

Chan contends that children are growing up quickly in terms of their use of language, taking on adult patterns of behaviour and adult entertainment. They are “desensitized to sex, sexual violence and objectification,” adding that “children and adults have fewer and fewer separated worlds.”

And these separate worlds are “often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them,” according to the APA report. “Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.” 

Writer Peggy Orenstein offers a lucid insight in the documentary, Sext Up Kids: “Girls need to understand that sexuality is something that comes from within and connects a girl to herself and to her desire and to her needs and her wants, and is ultimately empowering as she gets older; whereas sexualization is the performance of all that; and it’s a performance of sexuality and a performance of sexual entitlement that actually disconnects them from that stronger external sense of self.”

And that is the point. Raising sexually healthy children includes supporting them to find a personal sexual expression with which they are comfortable. Imposed, early sexualization objectifies and disconnects them from themselves, and interrupts this process.

Is there real harm?

The overtly sexual images depicted in documentaries on this subject continue to engender what Tatiana Fraser, the co-founder and Research Associate of Girls Action Foundation calls “moral panic,” a knee-jerk reaction that clouds this discussion; e.g., It’s a Teen’s World, Sexy Baby,  and Sexy Inc. Fraser asks if we are “slut shaming” little girls, blaming them for their legitimate sexuality.

The Commissioner for Children and Young People of Western Australia suggests that sexualization has become the ”background noise” or ”wallpaper” of children's lives and that this may be potentially harmful to them. (See its issue paper on sexualization, summarizing several studies in Australia and the United Kingdom). However, while some studies claim sexualization of children may impede children’s healthy mental and sexual development, they point out that “to date there is little substantive or empirical evidence to support these claims. 

The APA report suggests that when girls ask for sexy merchandise, they are “sexualizing themselves” and objectifying their bodies to serve the desires of others. APA researchers suggest there is a need to further investigate how this affects girls’ development, including their intimate relationships, ideas about femininity, body image, physical, mental, and sexual health, sexual satisfaction and risk factors for early pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections.

However, consensus on these questions is difficult to find (not to mention answers), according to the U.K. Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre, which reviewed recent research literature on the commercialization and sexualization of childhood. While the growth in sexualized images and products appears to encourage girls to grow up too fast and become too sexy too soon, the U.K. researchers admit that there is “much less agreement on what the effects of the sexualization of culture, in general or specifically on children, might be.”

The refrain is familiar: more research on the topic is needed.

Sexy women; sexy girls  

A parallel phenomenon emerging from this discussion is what the APA report calls “issues of age compression. The adultification/sexualization of young girls is paralleled by an infantilization of adult women,” writes Lisa Wade in a commentary about a photo spread in French Vogue. Pornographic images abound of women dressed up as schoolgirls.

Society currently prefers women who are thin, small and hairless, says Chan, unlike many other periods of history and/or in other places, where curvy womanly bodies were, and still are, prized. She says that girlish bodies have much more social capital. So, “as women get their vulvas reshaped to look like little girls, little girls (who naturally have little girl parts) become sexualized too.” (Listen to the CWHN podcast on Designer Genitalia).

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