Toddlers and Tears: The sexualization of young girls

By Mandy Morgan

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Nov. 17 2012 10:40 p.m. MST

"I pay a lot of attention to how children refer to their ideal selves, what they want to be. What 11-year-old girls were wrestling with years ago, we have ramped that down to young elementary school years," said Kendrick, who is from Boston. "I have girls in the fourth grade saying they need to go on a diet. They are healthy looking, fit girls but they are taking their cues from the bombarding of the media."

Researchers did a study looking at the self-sexualization of girls ages 6 to 9 at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in July. They showed girls two different dolls, one in tight, revealing clothing, the other in a modest but popular looking outfit. The researchers asked the girls to choose which doll looked most like themselves, which represented how they would like to look, which looked like the popular girls at school and which doll they would rather play with.

Sixty-eight percent of the girls said the sexy doll looked most like how they would like to look, and 72 percent reported that the sexy doll was more popular than the non-sexy doll.

"My whole issue with sexualization is that it robs girls of girlhood," Wardy said. "They should be out being creative and imaginative, and when they focus on being sexy women it takes away learning opportunities. It takes away the beauty of childhood."

Wardy is founder of a business, Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, which provides age-appropriate clothing fit for the strains of playing and rough housing in which children should be involved. She believes stark differences and gaps between genders develop sooner than they should, if girls can't play as hard and much as their boy peers.

"Girls are like ornaments, what they are wearing is so tight or revealing. They are losing how to take up space in the world," Wardy said. "Taking risks in childhood is so important, to push boundaries and to be with peers. You see girls standing around talking and boys are playing hard. That's my issue with the sexualization of clothing — part of it is making the girls so sexy so soon."

The effects of sexualizing young girls can highly damage self-esteem and are often long lasting.

"When we sexualize girls it has a real detrimental effect, it hurries them along and asks them to grow up and adhere to a standard that isn't natural to them — that what's natural and beautiful is being older than they are," said Dr. Robyn Silverman of New Jersey, a child and teen development specialist and author of the book "Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It."

"If you are telling a girl she needs to be sexy and she is being evaluated for her appearance at all times she isn't going to be fully aware at all times," Silverman said.

Toddlers and Tiaras

"All those girls are ugly," one 3-year-old beauty pageant contestant on "Toddlers and Tiaras" says of her competition for an upcoming pageant in Las Vegas. She sits amongst dozens of trophies and sashes in her bedroom with her mom, having not even arrived at the competition yet. And after taking the stage days later, she does prove to be one of the prettiest by taking the Grand Supreme title.

It's not just girls who participate in pageants who may have a warped view of the importance of physical beauty, researchers say. Girls who view reality television regularly focus more on the value of physical appearance than anything else, according to a 2011 study by the Girl Scouts Research Institute looking at the effect reality television on young girls.

Of the 1,141 interviews with girls age 11-17 more than one-third (38 percent) of regular reality show viewers think a girl's value is based on the way she looks, as opposed to 28 percent of those who are not viewers. Twenty-eight percent of viewers said they would rather be recognized for their outer beauty than inner.

"On (these) reality shows, with a lot of the drama that is shown, people start to think that's OK, like an everyday occurrence," Dr. Hilary Friedman, a Harvard sociologist and writer, told the Deseret News. "You can go out as a 6-year-old and wear a ton of makeup and have a bare midriff. So many see these girls on TV, and as they are watching that and when they see it become suggestive, it seems OK."

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