"We hate Bratz dolls. Right, Mommy?"
My four-year old daughter makes me proud in the toy aisle at Target. We're looking for a gift for one of her girlfriends who is turning five soon. My daughter's mimicry of my intense hatred towards a slew of popular young girls' dolls like Barbie and Bratz may be rote but it's firmly implanted. For a toy company like Bratz or Mattel, makers of all things Barbie, there is no getting around my maternal barricade; at least for as long as my daughter believes that mama knows best. This, however, is not the case for millions of young girls in this country. Girls as young as three-years old are now the direct targets of marketing campaigns hawking things like toys and clothing with obvious overtones of sex and sexuality. Add advertising and media content that over-emphasize the importance of physical appearance and sexual appeal for women and according to the American Psychological Association's (APA) latest report, The Sexualization of Girls, you've got a "broad and increasing problem" that is "harmful to girls."
What is "sexualization"? A Washington Post article about the report begins,
Ten-year-old girls can slide their low-cut jeans over "eye-candy" panties. French maid costumes, garter belt included, are available in preteen sizes. Barbie now comes in a "bling-bling" style, replete with halter top and go-go boots.
The information contained in the APA report may not be revolutionary—"Throughout U.S. culture, and particularly in mainstream media, women and girls are depicted in a sexualizing manner"—but the existence of the new report shines a spotlight on a societal skeleton in the closet.
American popular culture's obsession with a very narrowly defined standard of what constitutes sexy or physically attractive for the female form is not new. Neither is the idea that this obsession can have extremely negative consequences for young women. Jean Kilbourne, in her 1979 documentary, "Killing Us Softly" (and her follow-up films "Still Killing Us Softly" and "Killing Us Softly 3") uses advertising images and commercials to show the disastrous impact advertising can have on young women's psychological—and physical—lives. The National Eating Disorders Association lists "Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes" as a societal factor that can contribute to eating disorders. In fact, this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Accordingly, the Sexualization of Girls report outlines these disastrous impacts by stating that "sexualization has been linked to three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression."
While the APA report focuses on the harmful effects of sexualized images on college-aged women, the authors of the report emphasize that the "findings are likely to generalize to younger adolescents and to girls, who may be even more strongly affected because their sense of self is still being formed."
As a mother of a four-year old girl and as a consumer, it's not hard to see why. This sexualization can be found everywhere from toys to television shows to clothing historically geared towards preteens and teenagers. But it seems four is the new 14. From Bratz dolls ("Wicked Twins" Bratz dolls sport black chokers, tight black t-shirts that say ‘Bad Girl', and lace-up, high-heeled boots with fishnet stockings) to thong underwear for seven-year old girls, there exists a sort of merchandising and marketing minefield for girls that even the most media savvy mothers find hard to navigate. For a feminist mother, it's no longer enough to just say no to princess-themed skirts, underwear or sneakers. Merchandisers are much smarter than that. They have co-opted (from themselves) the "tween" and preteen messages that looking and acting older are desirable. And that to look and act older, for girls, means to infuse your persona with sexual imagery. It's hard to miss the sexual inappropriateness of a five-year old girl trying on chunky-heeled, knee-high black boots with a mini-skirt and a "belly shirt". Emulating older girls is a rite of passage for younger ones. But the consequence of young girls "wearing" or "playing" with sexuality so blatantly is no such thing. According to the report:
If girls purchase (or ask their parents to purchase) products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualizing themselves… Psychological researchers have identified self-objectification as a key process whereby girls learn to think of and treat their own bodies as objects of others' desires.
The task force that created this report was formed in response to public concern. Concern that has been growing for years about the alarming, and sometimes deadly, consequences of a media machine and a society consumed with unrealistic body types for women, and outrageously skewed expectations for what being female truly means. But, until now, in my opinion, not enough has been done to make sure the trend stops. Never fear; the APA report provides a list of recommendations for next steps.
The report outlines "positive alternatives" to combat this public problem. Some of these include working closely with schools to develop media literacy training programs, increase access to athletic programs and—my favorite—offer comprehensive sexuality education programs (because sexualization does not equal healthy sexuality!). In addition, as one might expect, parents play a crucial role in effectively combating the sources of sexualized images of girls.
One of the most exciting ways to work towards change, however, is for girls to work collectively or independently to create their own forums for advocating for themselves. The report lists ‘zines, blogs, feminist books and web sites as potential sources of activism; one of my favorites is New Moon Magazine. In response to the APA report, New Moon Magazine's executive editor, Kate Freeborn says, "New Moon doesn't just teach girls to resist unhealthy media messages, it's a manifestation of girls actually resisting."
Finally, the report lays out the research, practice, education, public policy shifts and public awareness campaigns that must occur in order for real change to come about.
Until then, whether you're the parent of a fashionista at five or just a hyper aware preschooler, there are alterna-dolls like "Groovy Girls", web sites that sell hip and trendy kid clothing sans sexiness, media like New Moon Magazine and not-to-be-missed opportunities for television or movie watching together. So, when you get the question that I got from my four-year old daughter last month, "Why does the woman on that billboard have her boobies showing?" you'll feel somewhat prepared.