Sexualizing kids: No child left behind — and fighting back

Parents, organizations decide to fight back

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Jenny Wykstra worries that the media gives children, including her daughter Morgan, 15, the wrong message about body image, sex and self esteem.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Editor's note: Because this is a story that deals with a sensitive subject, we have gone to great lengths to not include offensive material. Conversely, to fully show the breadth of the issue, the story includes mature subject matter.

This is second in a series. The first story looked at the sexualizing of teens. This story examines what parents and teens are doing to fight back.

Deseret News editorial: Fighting oversexualization

MIDVALE — The minute Bree Toone saw her new group of kids at the Midvale Boys' and Girls' Club this summer, she knew they needed to talk.

Girls as young as 12 were wearing high heels, short shorts and tank tops that left little to the imagination.

"They were trying to impress the boys and give off the vibe that they were confident women, when they are 12," Toone says.

She gathered about a dozen of the girls together and wrote the words "self-esteem" and "self-worth" on the board, then asked them to explain the difference.

Toone hoped to instill in them a sense of their own value, to tell them they're so much more than the makeup, clothes and boys they choose. What she hopes girls will understand is that they don't need to look sexy to be valued by society.

It's an uphill battle because the opposite message is everywhere — in music videos of 13-year-olds suggestively dancing, in posters outside of teen stores showing scantily-clad young girls bending over and even in skinnier-than-life Barbies targeted toward 3-year-olds.

In 2002, fifth graders told researchers they were dissatisfied with their bodies after watching a music video of Britney Spears or a clip from the TV Show "Friends." Not much has changed since then: a 2009 study of adolescents and young adults showed that 11- and 14-year-olds largely based their self-image on how they thought others viewed them.

The volume of these messages has increased over the last couple of decades. Clothing ads from places like Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess use sexually provocative images featuring young models. "These ads are selling more than clothing to teens — they're also selling adult sexuality," says Canada-based Media Awareness Network, which tries to help young people understand how the media works.

Experts worry that a generation of boys may grow up objectifying women and believing that they must be violent and macho to be respected or loved — unless the trend in constant messages from the media is reversed.

"Studies show that while teens received most of their information about sex from the media: magazines, TV, the Web, radio and movies; the majority say their parents shape their sexual decisions most. So it's important that parents talk to their kids about healthy sexuality, and about exploitive media images," a report by the network said.

What parents can do

Ever since an American Psychological Association task force first looked into the sexualization of girls in 2007, dozens of reports have described the consequences of messages that make women feel like sex objects. From a Women's Foundation of California report on pop culture's impact on girls and young women to a University of Missouri study released last month on how suggestive music videos impact college-age males, it's clear there are consequences to reducing a gender and a generation to body parts and sex appeal. Yet the bombardment continues. The Media Awareness Network found toy manufacturers target kids from birth to 10, rather than birth to 14, as they used to. "By treating pre-adolescents as independent, mature consumers, marketers have been very successful in removing the gatekeepers (parents) from the picture — leaving tweens vulnerable to potentially unhealthy messages about body image, sexuality, relationships and violence," Media Awareness Network wrote in a special report to parents. The report found that children 11 and older no longer consider themselves children.

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