. Growing Up Too Fast| Manitoba Parentzone | Healthy Child Manitoba
1-877-945-4777

Growing Up Too Fast

Most parents, at some point or another, have cringed at the images of girls and young women that we see on TV and in the media. Maybe your eight year old is asking for dolls that are dressed in thigh-high boots and feather boas, or, perhaps you’ve recently noticed that it seems like song lyrics and music videos are getting more and more risqué, or you’re concerned about toddler beauty pageants, sexting and social media...

It becomes pretty clear that our girls are living in a highly sexualized world, and research shows that this is harmful to our daughters. Other people in your child’s life might see getting ‘dolled-up’ as a part of girlhood, or tell you that your daughter is just wanting to look grown up. What’s a parent to do?

Let’s start by thinking about what’s happening in some of the kids’ shows that are currently on television. How many of them have a female lead character? If they do have a female lead, the odds are that she is pretty, polite, and there is some sort of focus on her appearance: maybe she loves to shop or wears sparkly gems or jewellery. There is also a more recent trend towards the sassy, full of attitude, ‘girl-power’ type of female character, although it’s very likely these characters are also pretty and boy-crazy. There is a fine line between cute and sassy, and straight up sexy. Still not sure?

Take a walk through the toy aisle the next time you’re in a department store. The dolls directed at young girls right now are most likely wearing pleather and fishnets, smiling coyly or suggestively, and heavily made up. Ten years ago, this description would have conjured images of the scantily clad women that we see in music videos directed towards older teens and young adults. But now, these sexualized images seem to be par for the course for our young daughters. Seem a little strange? What’s worse, and marketers know this, is that girls tend to want to emulate the images that they see, especially when they are of slightly older and more sophisticated girls.

The American Psychological Association explains this phenomenon of girls being seen as sexual objects, or having sexuality imposed upon them, being held to a standard of attractiveness, or of their value being reduced to their appearance, as sexualization. The sexualization of girls happens over time, and in many overt and more subtle ways. Consider the messages that thong panties for elementary school age children send, or t-shirts for toddlers with pictures of sexy kittens with long eyelashes and seductive gazes. Or the impact of these messages on boys and men and how this perpetuates sexism and contributes to the further victimization of girls and women.

The most troubling and severe form of sexualization occurs when we hear of children working in the sex trade, or child pornography, but seeing images of very young children dressed or posed in adult or sexualized ways or adult women dressed or portrayed as children in advertising also contributes to this problem. Women are often posed in silly or childlike ways, for example, standing pigeon-toed or with pigtails and a finger in the mouth, to appear more childlike.

Women are also often posed in static positions, or with the focus on certain parts of the body. This overemphasis on the appearance reduces women to sexualized objects rather than recognizing and depicting them as whole beings. Men, on the other hand, are generally posed as moving, active, and strong, further dividing the males from females and helping to create the distance between the genders that allows for continued violence against women.

Are you still thinking, “But she likes dressing cute and acting flirty!” Well, first of all, that probably has something to do with the reactions she gets from others, both adults and other kids. Humans are social beings and we often feel a lot of pressure to fit in with others. If children are shown that there are different types of friendships and relationships and that they have a say and some control over how their friendships develop, they can begin to make choices about how they act in order to gain friends. We as parents need to explain what those choices are and how they can affect their lives. As parents, we need to help our children understand that their self worth does not need to be tied into the number of friends they have or how popular they are in school.

For instance, if their friends are wearing glitter and clothes with leopard prints, or have lunch bags featuring their favourite characters from TV, having the same things can be a sort of social currency. Adults in her life might think it’s cute or entertaining, or might just think it’s normal, since this behaviour and focus on appearance does reflect what’s on TV right now. However, as parents, we have a choice to either allow our daughters to aspire to this one-dimensional and sexual image, or to challenge this idea, and offer realistic and different ideas of what it means to be female in our society.

In 2007, The American Psychological Association released a report on the findings of a task force on the sexualization of girls. Research links the sexualization of girls with eating disorders amongst many other concerns. They also noted that when girls see themselves as objects, they are more likely to experience depression or low self-esteem. Imagine how this could impact the choices your daughter makes in her life - for example, who she dates, whether she can walk away from peer pressure, or what career she pursues.

As parents, it’s important to recognize the role that children’s development plays in behaviour and sexuality. For example, what is inappropriate for a five year old might make sense developmentally for a fifteen year old. It’s also important to be aware that talking about sex, sexuality and relationships in age-appropriate ways is healthy and normal even for young children. We also need to remember that we are our children’s most important role models, meaning that our own behaviour and choices are going to impact our children, whether we mean to or not. Take some time to consider how you relate to your own body, how you relate to women, how you relate to men, and how you react to the comments of others, and what you see in the media. For example, do you laugh at jokes than minimize or put-down women? Do you spent time trying to change your own body, or do you accept it as it is?

Here are some other suggestions for parents:

  • Be willing and able to set age-appropriate boundaries with your daughter. If you don’t decide what media she is exposed to, or what toys enter your home, who will? For example, you might choose not to watch certain movies with your preschooler, or, you might discuss why you don’t want to purchase belly shirts with your tween. Setting boundaries also provides role modelling for your daughter.
  • f you have boys, talk to them about the way they relate to girls. Understand how the socialization of boys can contribute to the perpetuation of gender discrimination in our society. If you are a man, pay attention to how you relate to the women in your life. Television shows for boys often show same-gender friendships, but in reality many boys have close and valuable relationships with girls.
  • Consider the messages that the characters in books, TV and movies send to your daughters and to your sons. Do you really want your daughter to aspire to be a pop star, especially considering the crash-and-burn that we’re seeing with some of today’s young celebrities? Or, would you prefer that she pursues a meaningful and rewarding career that fulfills her in a more realistic and attainable way?
  • When you notice offensive, sexualized, minimizing or stereotyped portrayals of women or girls, take the time to talk about this with your child (both boys and girls). Having age-appropriate conversations about the images your children are seeing can have a lasting impact and may help them to see that these portrayals do not reflect reality.
  • When you notice offensive, sexualized, minimizing or stereotyped portrayals of women or girls in the media, think about contacting the source with your feedback. This might feel inconsequential in a world where we’re constantly bombarded, but marketers are aware of the buying power kids and parents have.
  • When you notice gender divisions or inappropriately sexualized dolls or action figures at your local toy stores, think about contacting the store and asking them to stop selling inappropriate toys and to create fewer divisions between the “boys toys” and the “girls toys” so that all of our kids feel comfortable choosing anything they want. Again, it might feel inconsequential, but stores do need to listen to their consumers if they want to stay in business.

The influence of the media on our daughters and our sons can feel scary sometimes, but parents take heart – many schools are already including media awareness and media literacy in their curriculums. And, as we’ve seen in recent years, many young people are also starting to actively challenge the images they see in the media. So don’t be afraid to start the conversation with your children. You might even be surprised to find out that your children don’t feel good about what’s in the media either.

Here are some great links to get you started:

Talking to Kids About Gender Stereotypes – This excellent tip sheet from Media Literacy Week gives great examples for parents who want to open a conversation about gender stereotypes with their children.

Media Smarts – Media Smarts is a not-for-profit Canadian charitable organization that exists to increase media literacy. They have a number of tip sheets available for download on many aspects of media as it relates to our kids.

APA Taskforce Report on the Sexualization of Girls: What Parents Can Do – This excellent tip sheet from the American Psychological Association offers parents helpful ideas and conversation starters for identifying and countering the sexualized images that are presented in the media.