As a pediatrician, Dr. Meg Meeker thought she had seen it all: eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation.
Then, a 5-year-old walked into her office in a push-up bra.
“Just over a decade ago, younger and younger girls started coming in dressed in sexually provocative clothes, underwear with suggestive writing on it, and inappropriately cut underwear,” Meeker said. “These were young girls — 5 to 7 years old. It was incredibly disturbing, to say the least.”
Since then, Meeker, who is the author of “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know” (Ballantine, $14.95), said that she has only seen the problem grow worse, both in the numbers of young girls dressing and acting in a “highly sexualized manner” and in the degree to which they do so.
“The shorts keep getting shorter and the shirts keep getting tighter, for the little girls, as well as the older girls,” she said. “That’s changing the way they perceive themselves, and not for the better.”
Few observers of the culture would disagree with Meeker. From the chain smoking pageant princesses on “Toddlers and Tiaras” to miniature stiletto heels for 4-year-olds, anecdotal evidence of early sexualization abounds. Whether they’re 5 or 15, increasing numbers of young girls have seemingly been following the lead of older women and vamping it up, valuing “sexy” more than “sweet.”
Now there’s a study that confirms that.
Sexy dolls and grade schoolers
Published in the journal “Sex Roles” this past summer, the study was the brainchild of then Knox College psychology major Christy Starr.
Starr said she became interested in studying the sexualization of young girls after seeing so many dolls done up in fishnets and heavy makeup in stores.
“I was surprised that such products would be marketed to young girls, and found that the companies who made them claimed that this was what little girls wanted,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I wondered if that was really true, and if so, what would cause young girls to have sexualized preferences.”
To find out, she teamed up with her professor, Gail Ferguson, and recruited 60 local girls between the ages of 6 and 9, some from public schools and some from a nearby dance studio, to participate in the study.
In the study, they showed girls four pairs of dolls. In each pair, one doll was dressed in provocative clothing — fishnet tights, mini-skirts, midriff bearing tops — and the other in modest but stylish attire — cargo pants and fitted hoodies or sweaters. The girls were then asked to choose one of the two dolls in answer to each of four questions: 1) Which doll looks more like you? 2) Which doll do you want to look like? 3) Which doll looks like she would be more popular? 4) With which doll would you prefer to play?
Overwhelmingly, the girls picked the “sexy” doll as the doll they would like to look like and the one who would be the most popular in school.
A slightly smaller majority picked the sexy doll as the one whom they looked most like. When it came to which doll they preferred as a toy, there was no noticeable preference.
“Although I had hypothesized it during data collection, it was a little surprising to watch so many young girls [none of whom were dressed ‘sexily’] choose the sexualized doll as who they wanted to look like,” Starr said.
The preference was also concerning.
While some adults may think it’s cute when their 6-year-old strikes sexy poses in pictures or clamors for tiger-striped mini-skirts, experts say that such behavior is harmful for them in both the short-term and long-term.
Greg Popcak, author of “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: The Secrets to Raising Sexually Whole (and Holy) Kids” (Ascension Press, $14.99), said encouraging girls at an early age to develop an identity rooted in sexual desirability can stunt their psychological development.
“Developmentally, kids at various stages are supposed to identify themselves with different ends,” he told OSV. “In grade school and junior high, they’re supposed to be identifying themselves by their skills, talents and abilities, as well as with healthy groups that can enable them to become well-socialized responsible people. In adolescence, they should be learning to identify themselves by their values and ideals.”
“But, when we give our kids an identity that’s entirely sexualized from the earliest ages, they don’t have to do any of that other work,” he continued. “They don’t have to identify their skills and abilities. They don’t have to find healthy groups and decide what principles they want to live by. They think, ‘I can just be sexy, and have other people drawn to me. That’s where I’m going in my life.’”
That, in turn, creates a whole host of other problems.
To start with, as Meeker pointed out, seeking sexual attention (and getting it) at a young age is a precursor to high-risk behaviors such as early sexual activity.
Girls who do that, added Popcak, also become far more sexually aggressive and less open to being told there’s anything wrong with such behavior.
“They don’t see being objectified as a problem anymore. They think of it as empowering. Their whole goal in life is just to be the prettiest object they can be,” he said.
With “pretty” and “sexy” at the top of a young girl’s goal pile, other, much more worthwhile goals tend to fall by the wayside.
As Starr noted, different studies on self-sexualization have linked teen girls and women objectifying themselves with poorer performance in school (most notably in mathematics) and in competitive sports.
“It’s deeper than simply not wanting one’s daughter to dress in a sexually provocative way,” she told OSV. “If we want girls in our culture to grow up to be healthy teens and confident grown women, it is important to ensure they do not begin sexualizing themselves at a young age.”
A hostile culture
|Christy Starr observes students in a classroom. Courtesy photo
It’s not just girls, however, who suffer from their early sexualization. Sexually aggressive young women who are ready and willing to be seen as objects of male desire aren’t exactly helping the boys and men in their lives, either.
Popcak said such attitudes among young girls only reinforce the tendencies in men to objectify women, sending the message that using women for sexual pleasure is perfectly acceptable behavior. And for those adolescent boys who are trying to be chaste and to treat their female peers with respect, it becomes that much harder.
“I’m talking to parents of 12 and 13-year-old boys whose girlfriends are getting mad at them because they won’t do sexual things,” he said. “Boys who are attempting to live some kind of values are getting feedback from their male and female peers that there’s something wrong with them.”
Then there’s the long-term forecast for the culture as a whole, which, when it’s increasingly made up of men and women sexualized at an early age, isn’t a pleasant one.
“Down the road what we’re likely to see is a culture that will experience greater degrees of narcissism, depression and anxiety disorders — those things being driven by not knowing how to be effective as a person and not being valued as a person,” Popcak said. “We’ll also see more and more relationships breakdown as marriage is redefined even more, as a temporary institution based on adult desire, not commitment between the spouses and commitment to raising children. Essentially, we’ll see all the trends we’re seeing now, only amplified.”
Reversing those trends begins with understanding the reasons underlying them.
One piece of the puzzle is the media and its sponsor, the advertising industry.
Over the past 15 years, little girls and big girls alike have been treated to different advertisements for Skechers tennis shoes featuring a pigtailed Christina Aguilera wearing a short, tight, Catholic school uniform and unbuttoned blouse, for padded training bras courtesy of the tween clothing store Justice, and for the Barbie Basics line — heavily made-up dolls with collagen-plumped lips sporting black mini-dresses.
Girls have also sat in front of the television watching the adventures of mini-skirt wearing, eye-rolling tween sensations Hannah Montana and iCarly, have received their first manicures and blowouts at the age of 4, courtesy of the Disney Princess Salon, and have performed in dance recitals to those classic odes of American girlhood, “Wild Thing,” “All the Single Ladies” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
All that exposure quickly adds up, and if parents don’t step in to help their children make sense of what they’re seeing, the wrong messages sink in.
It’s not the media in and of itself, however, that’s necessarily to blame. The Knox College study found that one of the prime buffers to prevent early sexualization wasn’t a complete ban on media, but rather mothers with a healthy self-image who helped their children become discerning viewers of media, pointing out problematic messages and discussing them with their daughters. When mothers didn’t step in, tended to define themselves in a sexualized manner, or banned media almost altogether, problems arose.
Those findings agree with what Popcak and Meeker have observed in their work: It’s parents, more than the media, who bear the responsibility for young girls’ early sexualization.
“I don’t think there’s a parent out there who wakes up and thinks ‘I want to turn my child into a sexual object,’” said Popcak. “Rather, it’s a commentary on the culture as a whole. What they’re thinking is ‘I don’t want my child to stand out.’”
And these days to be innocent is to stand out.
|Parents must take an active role in their daughter’s self-esteem. Thinkstock
“To not go along with the trends, to not keep your child ahead of the curve, whether in how they dress or by signing them up for 30 different activities, is making a statement that you reject the culture,” he explained. “But the only reason someone rejects the culture is when they have another culture to promote. If not, they’re just going to drift with the tide.”
Mothers in particular are at fault in that regard, said Meeker.
“It’s the mothers who are buying these clothes for their daughters, not the dads,” she explained. “On one level, some are living vicariously through their daughters. On another level, it’s extremely important to mothers, even mothers of faith, that their daughters are accepted by their peers. Many want them to fit in more than they want them to have a healthy psyche. So they allow the sexy clothing, even though they know it’s not good for them.”
Parents, however, are only the product of the larger culture, and it’s that larger culture, which identifies happiness with sexual fulfillment, that has convinced them that blue eyeshadow and leather mini-skirts are acceptable for second-graders.
“Everything we’re seeing now is a direct result of the celebration of sex without personhood — without the acknowledgment that a human being is a person who deserves to be loved, not an object, not a thing I can use and throw away,” Popcak said.
Changing that culture of objectification and use won’t happen overnight, but parents can take action now to protect their daughters from the damage of early sexualization, starting with their own attitudes.
“Dads have to become more assertive and let the moms know why the sexy clothing is inappropriate,” said Meeker. “Moms also have to remember that sexiness and ‘fitting in’ does not equal healthy self-esteem. Dressing modestly may not make their daughters popular, but it will help them develop into strong, confident women who value themselves rightly.”
Helping children become intelligent media consumers should also be high on parents’ priority list. Doing that requires more than a simple media ban. In fact, the Knox College study found that young girls who came from homes where the faith was important but media rarely viewed, actually opted for the “sexy doll” at a higher rate than those who regularly watched television.
Starr’s faculty adviser, Ferguson, who now teaches human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, posited that result may have something to do with a “forbidden fruit effect.”
“It is possible that girls whose exposure to the real world is too restricted at home … actually crave that exposure more and idealize sexy things in the world more because they are forbidden at home,” she said.
She continued: “Perhaps the implication of our findings supports Christ’s advice from Matthew 10:16: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’ Shrewd parents will prepare their daughters to understand what is out in the world … and will guide them in responding to what they see — both the good and the bad. Perhaps this is a way to live the Christian principle of being ‘in the world but not of the world.’”
Getting your children to listen to what you say can be a trick in and of itself, which is why Popcak urges parents, above all else, to prioritize forging strong bonds of attachment within the family.
“Most parents want to check these problems by simply controlling their kids’ behavior — what they watch, who they hang out with, what they wear,” he told OSV. “Kids need guidance in all those areas, but just trying to control those things is not enough. Kids are buying into the culture, as shallow as it is, because they feel affirmed by that culture, more than they feel affirmed by us.
“Our families have to be more attached, more loving, more connected,” he concluded. “We have to work to spend more time with each other, to develop rituals and routines that bring the family together and help us like each other better than the average family. If parents can achieve that, then they can provide guidance on what to wear, who to associate with, how to behave. If they can’t achieve that, their attempts to give guidance will become a power struggle, and the parents will always lose.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.