They're spray tanned. They're body waxed. They're wearing high heels in kindergarten. And increasingly in the online world, girls are choosing to represent themselves with sexy photos and videos.
Everyone knows that marketers will do anything to get people to spend money -- especially impressionable young kids. But in our always-on media environment -- in which girls not only consume media but create it -- there's growing concern that these sexed-up messages are seriously impacting girls' lives.
"Increasingly over the past 10 years, we've seen an escalation in the sexualization of young girls," says Deborah Tolman, professor of social welfare and psychology and founding director of the ASAP Initiative, which does research and analysis of sexuality for action and policy. "There's an inappropriate imposition of sexuality on young girls, and, as girls enter adolescence, they're learning to sexualize themselves," she says.
Tolman is part of a coalition of authors, academics, filmmakers, and celebrities like Geena Davis -- who leads the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media -- that's fighting back against a media and marketing drumbeat of sex, sex, sex. Fueling the movement is a 2007 report by the American Psychological Association showing the negative impact of over-sexualization on girls' happiness, self-esteem, sexual health, and academic performance. A new crop of books like Packaging Girlhood by Lyn Mikel Brown and Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, conferences like the SPARK summit, and documentaries like Miss Representation are, in Tolman's words, "taking sexy back."
"Girls are being shown in images that are almost like soft porn," says Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown, founder of the nonprofit Hardy Girls Healthy Women and part of the SPARK leadership team with Tolman. "It's a very limited view of girls' desires."
The effect, according to Brown, is to severely restrict girls' options, including the way they choose to portray themselves. "When you have a media that's closing down their options so young, gender gets associated with brands, fashions, and an ultrafeminine view of self."
In the online world, girls are reflecting back the images they see. According to Tolman, kids naturally experiment with identity as they mature. But being raised in a world that increasingly sexualizes them, they begin to view themselves as objects for other people's sexual attention. "No one asks them or teaches them how to think critically about these images," she says.
And trying to shield girls from a too-sexy media landscape -- tempting though it may be -- simply doesn't work. "Forbidding Facebook?" says Tolman. "Forget it. Kids are trying to provoke -- that's part of growing up."
Getting Media Savvy
Given media's 24/7 presence in our kids' world, it's become extremely urgent to raise awareness of the impact that this premature over-sexualization has on girls -- and boys. Girls need to see representations of themselves as human beings, not sex objects, and boys need to come of age with images of real girls, not sexed-up versions.
The focus of today's pro-girl movement is on looking at the media critically, providing options and alternatives to girls and enlisting them in solutions.
The best hope, according to Brown, is active involvement: "Give them critical tools to take this stuff on, so they're not taken in. It's not about protecting girls. It's about engaging them."
The good news is that access to alternative messages has never been easier. Lots of online resources, like Project Girl for example, are recruiting girls to give their opinions, offering activities and workshops, and providing ways to make choices that are in their own best interest. Below, our experts offer several tips to navigate today's new media environment and help girls stay on a healthy path.
Don’t buy in. Help your kids stay kids by not buying outfits, makeup, and other "grown up" accessories. Stay away from clothing that reinforces the message that looking "sexy" is a way to get noticed.
Seek out positive role models. Lots of little girls love to dress up as princesses. Help expand their horizons by finding role models in books, on TV, in movies, and in real life that show kids how they can be recognized for their talents and brains rather than their looks or behavior.
Watch out for stereotypes. Our kids look to their favorite actors and musicians for cues on how to act. Point out when the media rewards girls for being sexy and boys for being strong.
Resist consumerist messages. On mother-daughter days, do something outside the mall, like crafts, hiking, or biking. Not all mothers and daughters have to bond by shopping.
Challenge the status quo. Reinforce behaviors that don't involve kids' looks. Kids develop self-esteem by doing things they feel proud of. If your kids are getting their self-worth from attention-getting behavior, they'll have sold themselves short.
Talk about the pressure to broadcast. In this 24/7 world in which teens constantly flirt with different identities, teens often "pose" in cell phone pictures, on their social network pages, and in YouTube videos. Experimenting with identity is a natural part of being a teenager. But when teens send out these images, they travel far and wide, and reputations can suffer.
Find out what’s behind their behavior. A lot of times, the impulse to broadcast personal information (or sexy photos) is driven by the desire to get attention. Ask your teens whether they want to get attention by being provocative or by being themselves. Help them understand how certain choices make them feel.
Help them develop a healthy self-image. Help teens figure out whether they're acting out of their own motivations or trying to be more popular by fitting someone else's ideal.
Rely on role models. Positive role models have an enormous effect on kids. Cultivate relationships with women your daughter can look up to. And those TV shows that show girls as getting the guy by being super sexy? Have a reality check.
Talk to boys about real girls. When boys see sexy pictures or behavior, they naturally respond. But talk to your sons about how society sells girls short by over-valuing how sexy they look. Help boys understand that girls are human beings, not sexual objects.
Download a SPARKit! Download a SPARKit collage-making project that girls can use to show how the media has affected their lives. (Please note that some of the images on this site show graphic examples of women in advertisements, so you may want to visit first without your kids.)