Sexualizing Childhood

Anahvia Mewborn

Nail_polish_dropHardly anyone would quickly turn the channel if a commercial for Hanes Brand featuring women wearing just brassieres and underwear was displayed across their television screen today; nor would they hide their eyes from a cologne advertisement featuring a nude man with his genitals cleverly concealed. The American Sexual Revolution, which roughly lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s, paved the way for more open discussions of sexuality and greater acceptance of such things as public nudity in designated areas and premarital sex.

While representations of sexuality are now more pervasive in American culture than ever before, the discussion too often centers around sexual objectification instead of education. Young children are being exposed to sex without the necessary education to fully understand their sexualites. The media pervades all aspects of life: internet ads, commercials, billboards, songs and their videos constantly send the message to children that they should be concerned with sex and being sexually attractive. At a time when children are naturally hormonally and psychologically developing, they are being bombarded with sexual images and unrealistic examples of how they should be.

With misinformation coming from all directions, it is difficult for parents and educators to combat the messages children are receiving. The issue is not exposure to sex, but that the media is not exposing young children and teens to sex in an educational way, but in a way that encourages a view of women as sex objects. This objectification and misinformation is particularly affecting girls’ behavior and self-perceptions as they grow into women, as well as the way boys perceive and behave towards them.

We can define sexualization as the act of attributing sexual characteristics or undertones to subjects not innately presenting those implications or characteristics. Considering this, it is apparent that we sexualize women far more than men. If a shirtless man were to walk outside, he would not be arrested and punished. On the contrary, if a shirtless woman were to walk outside, she would be arrested in most parts of the country for indecent exposure. This double standard is an example of how our society has objectified the female body, reducing it to an object of sexual gratification, and assigning sexual undertones to a woman’s legs, breasts, and other body parts—a process to which the male body has not been equally subjected. Society views the male body as a whole entity and a woman’s body in parts. This process of objectification begins with the sexualization of youth.

Two of the most obvious areas in which young girls are receiving sexualized messages are in toys and clothes. In 2011, Sophie Morin’s company Jours après lunes, créateur loungerie enfant, which sells underwear for babies, girls, and adolescent females, put out a line of children’s lingerie. The advertisements for these products feature young girls wearing makeup and reclining across sofas, making them look older and more physically mature. The lingerie itself is not the issue; the issue is that the lingerie is produced for and sold to young girls and these young girls have been depicted as sexualized beings.

Dolls are an even more accessible source of sexualized messaging. Toys such as Bratz Dolls teach girls they need to be sexy in order to be popular. Bratz Dolls wear high heels, fishnet stockings, short skirts or short shorts, and revealing tops over disproportionately large breasts that most young girls don’t have. And people are buying them: while Bratz Dolls only debuted in 2001, by 2006 they made up 40% of the fashion doll market, with sales surpassing 2 billion dollars. With tangible examples of how they are “supposed” to look, there is even more pressure on young girls to personify the “sexy woman.”

This sexualization has alarming effects. In a study done at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.,  it was found that, when given a choice between a doll dressed in tight, revealing clothing and a doll dressed fashionably and age-appropriately, 68% of girls ages 6-9 said that they would rather look like the “sexy” doll, and 72% said that the “sexy” doll was more popular than the other one. This high percentage of extremely young girls who want to be “sexy” is indicative of a culture that sexualizes youth.

Researchers such as Dr. Jean Kilbourne, co-author of the book So Sexy, So Soon: The Sexualisation Of Childhood, have claimed that there is a correlation between the rising prevalence of such sexual devices in the media and the prevalence of underage sex. Because of the increased pressure on young girls to dress and act “sexy”, and the messages sent to young boys about what kind of girls they should like, argues Kilbourne, children are growing up in a culture that teaches them that being sexually attractive is the highest goal.

Human sexuality is natural, and young girls are physically and psychologically developing into sexually mature young women. Yet in a society that so powerfully objectifies the female body, a woman’s right to express herself through her appearance without being shamed as either too “prudish” or too “slutty” has been taken away.

In 2005, a group of Pittsburgh girls called a press conference to explain their purpose of “girlcotting” their local Abercrombie and Fitch store, protesting the sale of T-shirts that read “Who Needs Brains When You Have These?” across the chest area. In response, A&F pulled the T-shirt along with clothing of similar design.

While young girls have been able to effect change, they alone should not be held accountable to combat an issue that over time has increased in complexity and gained momentum. Adults have the greatest power in combating female objectification and youth sexualization. Companies continue marketing shirts with sayings such as “So many boys, so little time” because parents are buying or allowing their children to buy these items. These kinds of products are still in demand because the media promotes a narrow idea of beauty and sexualizes women’s body parts. To counteract this objectification, those in power need to show respect for a woman’s body, opinions, and independence. We have the power to transgress the boundaries that society has set for us by protesting the objectification of women.

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