Sexualizing kids: No child left behind — and fighting back
Parents, organizations decide to fight back
Aubrey, the University of Missouri professor who teaches classes to future advertisers, tries to help them see the effect certain images can have on youths. She says some students have a cynical outlook, thinking certain decisions marketers make are purely business, that they shouldn't have to think about ethics. She helps them to appreciate parents' and researchers' perspective on the matter.
"The media are a powerful force, very overwhelming," Aubrey said. "I want them to think critically about what they are doing."
After years of counseling very young children, Douglas F. Goldsmith, the executive director of the Children's Center in Salt Lake City, wishes parents would rethink sexualization and role modeling and even how praise is given. He's seen the consequences, he says: Eating disorders that were rampant 20 years ago haven't gone away. Marketing sexualized images to people who already struggle with body image — and there are lots of them — will result in serious consequences.
Depression, disordered eating, anxiety, shame and substance abuse are among woes linked by studies to poor self-image.
What receives praise matters, too. Instead of telling a child she's smart or beautiful, he recommends praising traits like how nurturing she was to her doll or how hard she worked on her term paper.
He'd skip "pretty and cute," he says. "We see 5-year-olds here who are very sexualized, very focused on 'do I look cute in my dress today? This is what the boys will like.' Four- and 5-year-olds are indoctrinated at that level."
Theresa Dvorak, a sports dietician at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray, knows firsthand the negative impacts media images can have on tweens and teens.
She counsels clients as young as 12 who compare themselves to what they see on TV and in magazines. "Adolescents' bodies are constantly changing and growing," Dvorak says. "Aside from infancy, this is the fastest-growing life stage. There are certain parts that are filling out faster than others, and adolescents tend to compare themselves more with each other and what they are seeing in the media."
A parent concerned a child is overweight should talk to the child's pediatrician, she says. The focus should not be on diet, but on encouraging children to eat healthy foods. Movement is also important.
"Just focusing on the weight can lead to negative issues down the road or potential extremes," Dvorak says.
BYU's Thomsen notes a fundamental difference when it comes to boys and girls and weight. "One of the interesting things about disordered eating is girls see themselves as bigger than they want to be, but boys see themselves as smaller. The perception is different. But there is definitely pressure to look and be a certain way," he says.
Fighting back works
On Aug. 31, 1,600 people used the Internet to protest a shirt being sold on JC Penney's website. The $10 shirt was emblazoned with "I'm Too Pretty to Do Homework, So My Brother Has to Do It for Me." The ad copy with it said, "Who has time for homework when there's a new Justin Bieber album out? She'll love this tee that's just as cute and sassy as she is."
Within four hours of the launch of an online petition drive by change.org, JC Penny yanked the shirt off its shelves, overwhelmed by the response.
Back in Midvale, Toone tries to compliment the girls based on their accomplishments and actions rather than on their looks. And if the boys yell obscene things at the girls, they are told to think about how they would feel if someone yelled that at their sister.
The counselors also try to help the boys change their idea of what girls are looking for and what they need to be by gathering the teen boys and girls separately every Monday and letting them talk about anything that is on their mind.
"It comes down to helping kids feel valued and loved," said Boys and Girls Club director Bob Dunn. "We give them the tools to make right decisions and work closely with the parents. We start with the 5-year-olds and make sure they feel valued."
Tips to parents
Protect children as much as possible from sexual imagery
Learn about media and pop culture in your child's life
Go beyond "just say no"; when possible, try working out solutions with your child
Establish safe channels to talk about sexual development, starting at a young age
Counteract the narrow stereotypes of boys and girls as seen in the media
Help children learn to have positive and caring relationships
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