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The end of innocence: The cost of sexualizing kids

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 12:34 a.m. MDT

When they look in the mirror and what looks back is not sexy and pouty and perfectly thin, "little girls get really serious body hatred and anxiety," says Lexie. The feeling stays as they grow into women. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of women 18 and younger who have had breast enlargements has risen nearly 500 percent over the past decade. Models and movie stars are routinely photographed using filtered lenses and false lighting. An editor can easily make wrinkles or pounds go away with digital editing tools, Lexie said. Girls are encouraged to emulate a standard that is not only unattainable — it's fiction.

"We create a really harsh environment for females. They grow up so early. 'You need to buy these things to grow up.' We villainize women for growing older. You don't see a woman represented positively unless she has youth and fitness and is sexual," she says.

Real girls don't stand a chance. The total effect, from the advertising to how women are portrayed, has become "normalized pornography," Lexie Kite says firmly.

Laura Christensen's daughters, Katie, now 19, and Rachel, 23, were teased because they didn't have boyfriends — in sixth grade. What she found most maddening, though, were magazine ads. "Ads targeting kids my daughters' age and younger," said Christensen, of Sandy. "You're not good enough without these products. Life is meaningless without a guy."

While researching this story, Deseret News reporters asked several children what ads try to tell them. A girl, 13, said hair product commercials are made so she will picture herself "more pretty, slick, together." She says when she sees them she imagines an edited, unrealistic version of herself. "It's a Photoshop think," she admits.

Lexie and Lindsay Kite believe fitness magazines create more body-image misery than the fashion and lifestyle magazines so often criticized for too-sexy depiction of females. They looked at Self and Shape. On their blog, BeautyRedefined.net, the twins said they ride a crest of popularity that includes studies showing health and fitness magazines trail only doctors as a source of health information for women and families.

The Kites found that "beyond objectification of bodies and the perpetuation of beauty ideals," they emphasize fitness in terms of appearance, not ability and wellbeing. The magazine slogans could be "weigh less, smile more."

The APA report notes that advertising across mediums has long sent confusing, sexualized messages, like Skecher's 2004 "naughty and nice" ad with a pig-tailed Christina Aguilera as a schoolgirl with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop.

Girls are maturing much younger than they were even 10 years ago. About 15 percent of girls now start puberty at age 7 and 27 percent at 8, according to a study of 1,239 6- to 8-year-old girls published last year in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

So where does sexualization start? It's an assault on multiple fronts, the targets younger and younger. Researchers at Ohio's Kenyon College looked at 15 popular U.S. store websites this year and concluded nearly a third of girls' clothing sizes 6 to 14 is "sexy." They defined it as clothing that highlighted a sexualized body part, had traits associated with sexiness or had sexually suggestive writing. They looked for it in tandem with childlike characteristics, like polka dots and modest cuts. "Tween" stores — those serving kids 8 to 12 — had the highest proportion.

It seems to Lisa Newberg that her boys, 13 and 17, are as inundated by sexual images as any girls are. Even kid-rated video games have characters with cleavage hanging out and skimpy clothing. Online video games have suggestive pop-up ads. She and her husband put parental monitors on the computers so the boys can't get into sites they shouldn't be on, and they talk about "not being in a position where you find yourself feeling like you need to do what the other kids are doing," she says.

The bombardment at younger ages also affects boys more than it used to, says a study released this summer which found boys mature faster than they used to. Lead author Joshua Goldstein says since the mid-18th century boys have matured about 2.5 months faster each decade.

Girls' "sexier" clothing has a direct impact on boys, says Evert, the motivational speaker.

"Men are very visual," he tells teenagers. "When a women dresses in a provocative way, it is basically telling us that is the best thing she has to offer. The body isn't bad, it's beautiful. But the beauty of a women's body is so intoxicating to a man, it can eclipse the beauty of the person if too much of the body is showing."

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