The playground in Janesville, Wis., is crowded with first-graders, but that doesn't slow down 6-year-old Amelia. She has playing to do — swinging across the monkey bars, tumbling down the slide, twirling around the fire pole.
With a jet-black inverted bob, and bright and wildly clashing leggings, socks and sneakers, Amelia has lots to do, and needs to be able to move to do it. Faded homemade washable cat whiskers are still barely visible on her red cheeks as she runs around with her friends.
"She goes to school crazy confident," her mother Melissa Wardy said. "As long as she is dressed appropriately for the weather, and venue, she is allowed to do her thing. She's something."
Just like millions of mothers with daughters in the U.S., Wardy is keenly aware of the choices available — clothing, beauty products, extracurricular activities — to aid in shaping young girls' appearance and the impact of these choices on self-esteem.
The sexualization of girls is happening at a younger and younger age as children, even toddlers, are bombarded with a plethora of adult influences and perceptions, studies say.
Eighty percent of 10-year-old girls in the U.S. report they have been on a diet, according to a recent study, "Eating Disorders Today — Not Just a Girl Thing." The study also reported the No. 1 wish for girls from the ages 11-17 is to be thinner.
Though the importance of appearance has long been part of life for girls and women in America, ads are now targetting a younger audience, Carleton Kendrick, a Boston-based family therapist, said. Just last summer, Jours Après Lunes, a French clothing company, started a new line of children's "loungerie" — thin, revealing undergarments, which are marketed for girls as young as 3 months old.
A whole new slew of shows also push, or at least normalize, the sexualization of young girls. TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" began in January 2009, and pulled in an average of 1.3 million viewers each week. It's success spawned a number of similar shows — "Dance Moms," "Cheer Perfection" and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," a show focusing on the family and everyday life of Alana Thompson, a 6-year-old pageant contestant previously featured on Toddlers and Tiaras.
"Honey Boo Boo" quickly became a surprise smash in the world of reality shows, and was the most-watched show on television the night of Sept. 26 season finale with nearly 2.8 million viewers, just thousands more than viewers of the Fox News prime-time line up.
Vanity and appearance are the themes of these shows centered around competition, with the parents as driving forces pushing their children to be the best in dance, cheer or beauty pageants.
"As people should know, but maybe don't, all shows of this kind are heavily edited for sensationalism," Kendrick said. "It's like these girls don't have a chance. They're being raised to think this is healthy. The entire media culture should not be who is raising these children."
So sexy so soon
Just as she encourages Amelia to run around the playground, get a little dirty and show that she can play just as much as any boy, Wardy works on keeping her daughter's closet full of age-appropriate clothing, her toy box full of playthings to encourage positive playtime and everyday conversation full of uplifting discussion about body image and self confidence, instead of bringing home influences that foster sexualization at any age. To sexualize is to make something sexual, which is a role meant for adulthood.
Kendrick, family therapist and author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's," has been working with families, including young girls and their parents for almost 40 years and has seen the importance of appearance gradually shift to younger and younger girls for just as long.
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