Playing Dress-Up

The danger of sexualizing children

Playing Dress-Up

Despite increased awareness of child exploitation, parents may be complicit in the widespread and early sexualization of their children..

Pre-teens have always enjoyed dressing up in Mommy’s clothes, but today’s young girls age eight to 12 years want their own sexy wardrobe. Despite increased awareness of child exploitation, parents may be complicit in the widespread sexualization of their children, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, depression, and eating disorders.

A toy box full of carnal knowledge–Bling Bling Barbies and Bratz dolls dressed in fishnet stockings are only two examples–is helping to create a generation of children defined and valued according to their sexual appeal. Sadly, many parents are seemingly oblivious to the potentially frightening consequences.

The disturbing phenomenon of the sexualization of children has been steadily growing since the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Children, and their parents, are being sold the illusion that kids are capable of safely navigating the sexual world of grown-ups.

“This results in an early sexualization of children before they can process what sexuality is and long before they have a chance to discover and explore their own sexuality,” say the experts at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in a their Kids’ Health newsletter.

Today’s children are bombarded with messages in the advertising and entertainment industries–even the squeaky clean ones such as Disney–linking physical beauty and sexual attractiveness with happiness.

That message is fed through role models that are impossibly thin, highly sexualized, and often totally messed up. Pre-teens see idols such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, themselves products of pre-pubescent sexualization, and want the same fantasy lifestyle.

Hot but Unhealthy

Introducing kids to a world of sex, long before a child can process what sexuality even is, can be harmful to emotional development, says the American Psychological Association (APA), because children are not equipped psychologically to interpret the sometimes abnormal sexual behaviour of their favourite pop stars. The early exposure can cause confusion and trigger feelings of inadequacy and prompt children to explore sexual behaviours prematurely.

The APA’s recent Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls studied the content and effects of advertising in television, movies, music videos and lyrics, magazines, video games, and the Internet. Released in 2007, the widely published results found that the negative consequences of sexualizing young girls are “very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development.”

Australian professor Marika Tiggemann has conducted extensive research on the effects of early sexualization, finding the impacts to be overwhelming on a girl’s self-esteem, including body dissatisfaction and shame, increased vulnerability to eating disorders, and a preoccupation with how her body looks rather than how it performs. According to Tiggemann’s findings, the resulting low self-image often encourages a girl to withdraw from physical activity even though it helps to maintain positive mood and cardiovascular health.

Too Much Too Soon

Perhaps the most devastating and terrifying consequence of sexualizing kids is a concern that it may encourage unwanted advances from sexual predators.

“The sexualization of girls may not only reflect sexist attitudes, a societal tolerance of sexual violence, and the exploitation of girls and women, but may also contribute to these phenomena,” the APA report states.

Child advocates have argued that the increased sexualization of children in the media encourages molesters to rationalize–and perhaps act on–their feelings of attraction to pre-pubescent children, according to Lyba Spring, a long-time sexual health promoter with Toronto Public Health.

“Soft porn images are regularly used in advertising, which also normalizes the behaviour,” she says.

According to the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres, the shame and fear associated with child sexual abuse makes it largely a hidden crime. Although most experts believe the numbers are alarming, it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who are sexually abused at some time during their childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that more than 88,000 children were confirmed victims of sexual abuse in the United States during 2002. By contrast, there is no current Canadian research–studies have not been conducted on the prevalence of violence against women and children since the mid-1990s.

It is a shame, because the health consequences of child sexual abuse are often severe, including long-term and emotionally debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder, reports Spring. Victims report depression, sleep disturbances, nightmares and night terrors, eating disorders, mood swings, anxiety, and flashbacks as some of the consequences of being violated.

Precocious Puberty

Other experts say another factor that has evolved over the past 20 years fuels the sexualization of children: the early onset of puberty.

In 1997 Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina released the results of a controversial study suggesting that girls, on average, have been entering puberty, including breast development and the onset of her first period, sooner than they did 30 to 50 years ago.

The causes are complex, including an increase in obesity, higher fat diets, and environmental estrogens, Herman-Giddens says. The constant exposure to sexual stimuli, such as through advertising in the media, can also be a factor triggering precocious puberty.

Although Dr. Mark Palmert, a pediatric endocrinologist at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, doesn’t completely reject Herman-Giddens’s theories, he says that much more comprehensive research must be done to determine if increasing numbers of children are experiencing early puberty–and if so, if there is any link to the sexualizationof children.

“We need significantly more in-depth, controlled research to determine how often girls are experiencing early puberty, the possible causal links, such as the sexualization of children, and the psychosocial impact,” Palmert says.

Parents Play a Role

Experts agree, however, that parents are their children’s most important role model in building healthy and age-appropriate sexuality.

Toronto Public Health has held workshops on how to help children develop into sexually healthy individuals, as have other health units across the country.

“Helping them understand healthy relationships is part of this–children need images of healthy individuals to support these messages,” Spring says.

The sad lives of many of their children’s idols and the increasing numbers of pedophiles gracing the front pages of their newspapers should be reason enough for parents to abandon the rush for their young girls (and boys) to grow up so quickly.

Like other aspects of personal health, parents play an important role in guiding the development of their children’s sexual identity–at an age-appropriate pace. Despite the influences surrounding their children, parents are still the most powerful source of information. Preventing early sexualization will ensure children grow up into strong, well-grounded adults who make healthy sexual choices.

A Toy Box Full of Carnal Knowledge

Children have always begged their parents for the latest expensive toys and trendy outfits, but lately the items on a young girl’s must-get list have defied logic:

  • Mani-pedis for tweens and trashy-looking Bling Bling Barbies for five-year-olds
  • Beauty pageants and fishnet stockings for 10-year-olds
  • Make-up, belly-rings, and booty calls for pre-teens
  • Cosmetic surgery for adolescents–and business is booming, often at the request of Mommy

The APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls lists the consequences of early sexualization:

  • An undermining of the confidence in, and comfort with, a girl’s body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, including shame and anxiety
  • A link to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression
  • Difficulties developing a healthy sexual self-image
  • Contribution to pornography and trafficking and prostitution of girls

What can We Do to Stop the Sexualization of Children?

Research: Experts agree that more research is needed to determine the extent to which children are impacted by the early exposure to information about sexuality. More study is also needed to examine all the complex reasons girls are experiencing puberty at an earlier age as well as its impact.

Media: Advertisers should be encouraged to become more responsible in the kinds of role models they present to children. According to the Media Awareness Network, young children are vulnerable to misleading advertising, especially before age 10. To protect young consumers, Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act has gone as far as to prohibit print and television advertising directed to children under the age of 13.

Education: Schools need to make a serious commitment to sex education. The education system can also play an important role in teaching children media literacy. And it is important to raise public awareness about the growing trend to sexualize children and work to mitigate and prevent harm on both the exploited youth and society.

Parenting: Parents should regularly discuss the messages their children are receiving through the media, pop culture, and advertising and ensure a wide variety of media alternatives are readily available. Children thrive with age-appropriate boundaries and limitations and look to their parents as their first, most important role models. Adults should encourage children to focus on personal achievement, rather than appearance.

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