Whenever I think popular culture, and the companies that control it for their own profiteering ends, has gone as low as it can go in its wanton disregard for basic decency in general and children in particular, it always seems to find a way to dig deeper within itself and discover new depths to plumb.
Cases in point was the release of a new line of girls' bathing suits by the actress Elizabeth Hurley that has caused quite a stir, along with two recent research studies that, taken in toto, should leave any parent of a young girl absolutely mortified. This isn't the first time I've explored the unhealthy relationship between popular culture and girls. It's such a big issue for me because I have two young daughters of my own. I see them surrounded by these awful messages and want to do everything I can to protect them for as long as I can (while recognizing that I can't protect them forever).
Some might argue that all this concern for young girls' exposure to sexuality is just much ado about nothing. These girls are just wearing clothes that are fun and they don't even know what sex is. Or we Americans are such prudes; girls in other parts of the world run around naked and no one cares. Or girls might as well get used to it because that's the world they are now growing up in.
But my harsh reaction isn't about religious beliefs, personal standards of conduct, or legal views on decency. Rather, my condemnation is based on my own work in child development and parenting as well as the latest research on the impact of early exposure of sexuality to girls' development. And the impact of this early sexualization of girls is real and it ain't good.
As I write about in my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You, children are sponges for the early messages they get. Further, thanks to television, movies, and the Internet, popular culture sends its unhealthy messages loudly and persistently, drowning out other healthier messages (e.g., from parents) that might be trying to get through. When children are exposed to these messages enough, they can't help but internalize them and make them their own. And, sadly, these unhealthy messages shape the values, attitudes, and beliefs they come to hold about themselves and the world. It's not hard to see, then, how early exposure to sexuality can set girls on an unhealthy life path.
A recent study found that girls as young as six years old wanted to be like dolls who were dressed in a sexy way compared to dolls who were dressed stylishly, but covered up. These young girls associated being sexy with being the way they wanted to look, being popular in school, and who they wanted to play with. Another finding of the study was the girls who spent a lot of time with media and who had mothers who were overly invested in their own appearance were more likely to identify with the sexily clad dolls.
One study found that about one-third of the clothes for girls sold had "sexualizing characteristics." Interestingly, most of these clothes also had age-appropriate elements, perhaps obscuring the sexual side of the designs.
So, what impact does all of this have on young girls? It definitely not good. An American Psychological Association task force report found that girls who are exposed to sexual messages in popular culture are more likely to have low self-esteem and depression, and suffer from eating disorders. I see girls in my daughters' school wiggling their behind, strutting their stuff, posing with hands on hips and one hip out, and giving off that "sassy" (code word for "sexy girl") attitude.
The bad news is that mothers can actually cause their young daughters to buy into this early equalization, potentially causing them to develop attitudes about their sexuality that can have serious long-term consequences on how they view themselves and their future sexual behavior.
But, thankfully, mothers' influence on their daughters is two sides of the same coin. The good news is that mothers also have the ability to mitigate this unhealthy messages about sexuality by limiting exposure to age-inappropriate sexuality, using early exposure to sexual messages as teachable moments, instilling healthy values and attitudes about sexuality, and, probably most importantly, not sexually objectifying themselves.
Hey, don't forget us fathers either in whether or not young girls see themselves as sexual beings. If you don't think dads have an impact, you're being naïve. Think about it. If you read men's magazines, ogle cheerleaders while watching football on TV, or get upset when your wife isn't all "dolled up," what messages are you sending to your daughters?
I can't really blame companies that sexualize young girls to fatten their bottom line. In the amoral free-market system, that is their reason for being. I do, however, blame the parents who buy this clearly inappropriate stuff, thus creating a market for these and other products that have no redeeming value and do plenty of harm. The calculus is simple: no demand, no market, no sexualization of girls. I do wonder about some of the executives of these companies who have young daughters of their own.
Is there any chance that we can convince the companies that sell sexuality to young girls to just stop it because it is wrong? No way! And I can't see our government doing anything that would place the welfare of children over the bottom line of Big Business (sorry for the cynicism). So, as is so often the case with children, the buck stops with us. We the parents have the power to turn our daughters into strong and confident women with a healthy relationship with their sexuality.
The choice is yours.