The sexualization of children (specifically young girls) is everywhere these days. Bratz Dolls are the new Barbie. You can’t walk into a children’s clothing store these days without seeing tiny mini skirts and skimpy or just plain inappropriate tops, it seems. Even then-12-year-old Dakota Fanning, most recently the star of Charlotte’s Web, had a stint shilling for Marc Jacobs.
Melinda Tankard Reist is the founding director of Women’s Forum Australia and editor of its new report on women’s magazines, Faking It. In an interview with MercatorNet, she discusses the widespread treatment of young girls as sexual objects for the purposes of marketing, and about the necessity of creating a global movement of women and girl advocacy.
A few highlights:
MercatorNet: Most of us have seen the little girls in miniskirts, platforms and boob tubes; we have heard about the bralettes and g-strings designed for them, and the sexy Bratz Babyz dolls. But tell us about the magazines for young girls — are they really so bad?
Melinda Tankard Reist: An analysis of the three most popular magazines for young girls — Barbie Magazine, Total Girl and Disney Girl — showed that about 50 per cent of the content of the last two was sexualising material. For Barbie it was no less than 75 per cent. This is really bad because these magazines are aimed at girls from five or six years old and up. Around a third of girls aged six to 12 read one or more of them. The pages are full of advice on fashion, beauty and products. Lip gloss, perfumes, deoderants and hair styling products are promoted as must-haves for primary school girls. Along with this they can get “hot gossip”. Little girls are shown how to look and behave like pop stars, including how to do “sexy” dance moves.
One Barbie Magazine issue was touted as a “cute crush issue”, with images of teenage boys and men up to 30 years of age and comments such as “who’s your celeb dream date”. This can lead to girls being prepped for sexual advances from men. We know that this is happening to some girls who use social networking sites on the internet. Popular culture, including magazines, prepare them to be approached by men sexually and the internet provides the opportunity. An Australian, Jim Bell, who served time for child pornography offences, wrote an article justifying himself on precisely this ground. He said society allowed sexualised images of children in television, pop music and fashion, and the world of internet child porn merely completes the process. He had a point.
MercatorNet: What are the effects this “girl-poisoning culture” is having or is likely to have on the generation — girls and boys — growing up now?
Tankard Reist: Young girls are not emotionally equipped to process these messages. It’s difficult for them when abandoned to their autonomy, to resist outside pressure. Exposing them to airbrushed, sexualised and thin images of other women makes them feel worse about themselves — it affects their wellbeing and self-esteem. Let me quote the American Psychological Association:
“In addition to leading to feelings of shame and anxiety, sexualising treatment and self-objectification can generate feelings of disgust toward one’s physical self. Girls may feel they are ‘ugly’ and ‘gross’ or untouchable… Strong empirical evidence indicates that exposure to ideals of sexual attractiveness in the media is associated with greater body dissatisfaction among girls and young women.”
We are seeing the effects of this sexual objectification on the bodies of young women in self-destructive behaviour such as excessive dieting and eating disorders, drug taking and binge drinking, self harm, anxiety, depression, lower academic performance and ill health. As the APA also points out, this trend not only reflects sexist attitudes but probably increases the risks of sexual violence against women and girls. I would say, certainly.
MercatorNet: People are buying this stuff and letting their children buy it. Aren’t the mothers and fathers to blame? I mean, no money = no sales = no industry.
Tankard Reist: It is too simplistic just to blame parents. Parents are up against it and often feel powerless to hold back the tide of sexual imagery and negative messages which flood our communities. There needs to be a whole of society approach. I agree with the view that “it takes a village” to raise good children. Unfortunately the village has become toxic. We need governments, regulatory bodies and other agencies to ban sexualised representations of children and to do something to stop the pornification of every aspect of daily life.
Read the rest of the interview here.