Too Sexy, Too Soon

In our sexed-up society, can a pro-girl movement help your daughter resist the call to be too sexy, too soon?
Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: Marketing to Kids, Sex in the Media
Parenting Editor | Mom of one

In our sexed-up society, can a new pro-girl movement help your daughter resist the call to be too sexy, too soon?


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.

Fighting Back

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."

Providing Options

"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.


Tips for Parents of Young Kids


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.


Tips for Parents of Pre-Teens and Teens


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.)


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About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more
Do you think girls are getting too sexy too soon?

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Comments (26)

Adult written by Monera

This is a tricky topic. I think, naturally, both girls and boys will see themselves in a sexual light after puberty. Before that, I believe the root issue is not a libido, but just the will to fit in with no actual sexual desires. If one were to actually offer the act many would say a bold no. A lot of it is just a facade to fit in, not a genuine desire for such pleasures. Also, no one seems to look at it from this angle; little kids do not look physically "sexy", any "sexy" clothes just look silly and satirical. Obviously, an extreme example would be a 5 year old in a bodycon dress, but she would not look "sexy", just plain stupid and silly. Most examples probably refer to tweens and young teens. As for those, it's open more widely to debate. I personally think that between later teen hood and the early twenties are the prime time for any expression of "sexiness". In past years, 16,17,18 year olds and so on were expected to leave the nest and marry. Let's not go down the other path to infantalizing them at the opposite extreme. As said before, many teens only do it for conformity to peers and media, not an honest display of sexual desire. The conversation to address that if you're concerned should be about peer pressure and the pros and cons of conformity and not sexuality until they genuinely feel those feelings. Parents should ask their children why they want to look the way they do and find out their answer before reading their minds if they're concerned and address any unhealthy feelings whether they be sexual, body image or peer pressure or a combination and understand their point of view. In essence, many except a minority are just using sexuality to display conformity, not expecting advances to sexual acts. In my personal opinion, anyone over their twenties should also return to a more modest look. Sexy clothes are for youth in their prime, a small window between childhood and full adulthood.
Teen, 14 years old written by AlicornQueen

I remember when Strawberry Shortcake used to be this kind and good little girl. Now she looks more like a woman. And i want to point out that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has some sex stereotypes. For an example, Pinkie Pie dressed up looking like a PROSTITUTE in one episode. And in Rainbow Rocks, the antagonists, the Dazzlings (who were sirens in disguise) dressed up and behaved...almost seductive. Even Twilight and her human friends wore skimpy costumes and MLP is for kids 8 and up. 8 and up!I feel we should tell our young girls that the costumes they wear to how they look is not okay.
Adult written by Senser123

I feel that the girls should not go too sexy too soon they need to wait till they are young adults (20+) to do so no wonder girl hood has become more packaged than ever before.
Teen, 14 years old written by sexybeast101

I think its good that they wear sexy clothes at my age(14) its attractive. why does it matter? if they want to look sexy let them. we love it and so do they
Teen, 15 years old written by ASLgirl

Uh, no way. The reason my favorite shop is Community Aid is because I can avoid all the over sexualized clothes teens are supposed to wear. As a woman of God, I know how the media can use clothes to determine my self worth. I am 13. I care more about becoming better Christian and a future engineer than being sexy. As Dawn from Fireflight said in an interview, women are made to express the beauty of the Lord. Satan once was beautiful, and he wants to undermine us in everything. So we doubt ourselves and kill our selves on a path to an unattainable media beauty. But I am beautiful because I was made in God's image.
Teen, 16 years old written by word of wisdom

Hi my name is word of wisdom im from oklahoma city ok. I just learned how to use this website and I just want to say is that i agree 100%. I am not a girl I am a boy I just think that a girl should not have to wear provocutive clothes and alot of make up to get the satifacation and the attention they want from a boy. Im not saying that is not good or i dont like it just to much can be offensive to some other people.I honestly think that all girls are pretty on the outside and the inside in their own special way. BYE BYE
Adult written by Straywater

Make up isn't always used to look 'sexy', sometimes its just simply fun. Kids just need to know that they don't need it all the time and that they should use it for the right reasons. Their is nothing wrong with dressing up like a princess. When i was a kid my rolemodels were Cinderella and Sleeping beauty, and it wasn't because they were pretty. It was because they were kind. Umm soft porn? That's kind of an exageration. Even if it weren't, there is nothing in this article that supports this claim or any other made here. What people see on tv and movies or read in books is simply for entertainmeant. The media always has and will always brand. Yes, it has an impact but instead of blocking everything from kids, parents should comunicate with them and talk about what they see.
Teen, 13 years old written by Ki-RBT

The point that they're trying to make here is that if young girls get the idea that 'beautifying themselves' is appropriate before they're old enough to make smart and age-appropriate decisions, they can go off on the wrong track. Also, there are a lot of manipulations and such that, yes, are similar to certain 'adult' ones. Although the article doesn't particularly cite these items, there are plenty and it is a problem.
Parent written by RebornAngelCSM

This website it completely true with this topic. Yes the princesses are overly beautiful. But! Back when the girl "Snow white, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella" The women back then were overly thin thanks to not being able to eat very much. But now adays the girls are much larger and their hormons are more active due to staroids in the meats we eat. But this is just what we need to try to understand each generation is different each coulture is different. Each parent and location is different. My entire life I had to hear about my mother being miss popular. She was the head cheerleader, more beautiful girl in the school, valid victoria, class president "Every year", prom queen, and more. She was thin and perfict. I never was anything like that. I gained a heavy amount of wait. I never had good skin always pimply and oil. Nobody liked me as a friend or anything. I never did what any of the girls did. I never wore make-up and still never have. My little sister is a freshman in high school this year. She has worn make-up to school since she was in 4th grade. I always yelled at her about being to young and things. But never did she or my mother care. My mother would encourage her to it and now as a freshman she is smoking cigarettes with my mother permisions. She is doing things that no child should do till they are 18. My sister will not leave the house until her hair is done and her makeup is smeared on her face. I cant bring her away from the make up. My friends (I only have 3 girls who are my friends) they never come to school without make up and this has been like that since early middle school they said. Befor they wore make-up they looked so natural and beautiful it was unreal why they wore makeup. When you wear it for so long and you take it off you look tired, sick, or on drugs. Yes for special occations like dances, holidays and your wedding. Is okay, but dont go looking like your trying to attract a one night stand. Or start working the corner. Im just saying you need to think befor you speak and Im speaking these words. Trust your daughters (Or sons) who want to wear it talk to them on how you feel and how they feel. (Include daddy in on this) Tell them what makeup can due to your owm body after some time.
Kid, 12 years old

I find myself completely agreeing with this article. Many girls at the age of 9 or 10 are dressing in too-short shorts, showing bra straps, worrying about their weight, or begging their moms to wear make-up. There is a time when girls start to mature sexually and find themselves wanting to appear "sexy" to attract boys. I will not lie and say that looks do not matter, but they certainly don't at the young age that current media is portraying these days. I started wearing make-up at the end of sixth grade and just started seventh grade this fall, and while my mom is a-okay with that, she still has a fit over me wearing jean shorts to school. (Well, not anymore since it's October...) If you feel your child is trying to sexify themself too early, just remind them that they are beautiful just the way they are, and try to deal with it when the topic comes up a couple years later. Reinforce some good role-models ("Toddlers and Tiaras" NOT being a good show--filled with spoiled three-year-olds with published books and Facebook pages), not people your child won't understand like Rosa Parks, but maybe some actress with good morals. Don't discourage your child from appearing clean and nice, but don't let them control their own life, either.
Parent of a 14 year old written by gabrielleA

my 14 year old has one classmate who wears those va-va-voom type bras....really? What is that mother thinking? Of course the other girls talk behind her back (maybe out of envy that she has an "easy" mom) and I'm sure if they guys know (maybe they do?) they'll deem her as sleezy...just can't wonder why kids can't be kids w/o all this attire is pushed/allowed.
Kid, 10 years old

There's a girl in my class - she's TEN - who is bullied for not wearing a bra by some of the very superficial girls and an eleven year old who wears one of those ones that enlarge them by like 3 sizes!!! If you need to wear abra wear it but not one of the enlargement ones they're for adult porn stars and strippers, not kids.
Teen, 15 years old written by nomadicjellyfish

I'm a sophmore in high school and only wore makeup three times. All three times were for my school's drama club show. My friends where makeup because it makes them feel "pretty". Not for guys.
Parent of a 8 year old written by NobodysAingyl

I don't see the point in pre-teens and under wearing make-up. I wasn't allowed to wear anything other than light-colored lip gloss out of the house until I was 14. By the time I was, I had learned how to properly apply the make-up I wore. To this day, I wear eyeliner, shadow, and cover-up. That's it. My 8 year old is allowed to play with glittery pastel eyeshadow and lip gloss, but that's it. My oldest girl, who is 11 and doesn't live with me, will be receiving pastel eyeshadow with the stipulation that she must follow the rules of her grandmother regarding makeup and that I expect her to get help from the women around her in learning how to apply it correctly. On another note, eyeliner doesn't always look trashy. Last year, my 8-year-old wanted to play dress up with makeup, so I put a little bit on her for pictures. Light brown liner, sparingly applied, light pink lip gloss, and a peachy-brown shadow, also sparingly applied. She looked adorable and had fun showing Grandma and Grandpa. She was sad that I wouldn't let her leave the house like that, but she's not wearing makeup on a daily basis until she's older -.-
Kid, 10 years old

I agree. One of my friends wears makeup, and I really don't see why at this age.
Kid, 9 years old

The girls do all that stuff to fit in. At a current grade and age there's a "popular crowd", Girls try to fit in. But they think there appearance is the problem. So they get all like that. The show "Toddlers and tiaras", the parents just want the money. The girls are stuffed with make up and sexy clothes. It's disquisting, the girls must be in pain of those short revealing dress, unconfortable make up, itchy wig, fake cheap nails, burning tan, and fake teeth. I hate how the parents torchure them like that! They see Mackenzie (from toddlers and tiaras) and she is so rich and spoiled. She looks too sexy. When she goes to her pageant, girls surround her and say "OMG! Mackenzie, your our biggest fan!" says one girl. See, a trashy spoiled girl who looks to hot, has fans? The fans will want to be her! She signs the autographs. Thats what girls should not be watching!
written by Anonymous

Some girls use makeup because it's fun to experiment with it, not to be sexy!
Educator and Parent of a 6 and 11 year old written by connielove93

People complain too much, who cares of ur child wants to wear makeup because thats what her friends are doing??? It will not hurt/kill anyone! Violence and bullying are much more important topics than this!! There are too many stepford wives on this site sheesh!
Kid, 12 years old

Mulan is a great Disney character, strong courageous, has a strong heart and will do anything for her family. It's hard to find Disney princess now and days, Mulan isn't even a princess. Disney should create a princess who doesn't show off so much skin, and that takes stereotypes and take "sexy" back, a character with a strong personalty.
Parent of a 14 year old written by gabrielleA

love this article. I remember seeing underwire bras in the kids sections...Kids? Seriously? I understand wanting t-shirt bra's but if mine wanted anything "more", they have to wait until they are out of the house and paying for it. I know some mom who actually lets their 8th grader wear a padded/pushup bra and so much makeup (eyeliner like the 50's w/ the cats eyes) that she looked raunchy. C'mon, parents, let's be age-appropriate here?
Teen, 14 years old written by sweetrae1

If your not ready for your kids to go so heavy with the makeup do what my mom did. Buy mascara that's really the only need for makeup it brings out your eyes other makeup is to much. I'm 14 and I now realize that preteens, and teens only wear makeup because they think that's what make's all the guys attracted to you, or makes you sexy, but the truth is it does the exact opposite! Don't let kids bribe you on buying makeup at a very young age start and 12 right when they hit preteen, because if you start to young it can be to tragic they can turn into something horrible. The last thing you should buy for you kid is eye liner, and make sure to tell your kids Not to share makeup, or use friends makeup because you can get pinkeye!
written by PinkSoda

I completely agree. Whatever happened to the good old days when kids could be kids?
Educator and Parent written by Corrina07

I partially blame it on us advertising to adults and just a corrupt society hellbent on preying on the "impressionable" youth.