There’s a well-known saying in the media business that “sex sells.” Like a lot of conventional wisdom, this turns out to be a truism that’s not entirely true: neither nudity nor sexual content actually increases the revenues of movies or other media and sexual content in TV ads may make viewers like them less. In fact, there’s evidence that girls react negatively to what they recognize as sexual content: a 2008 study done at Canterbury University in New Zealand found that tweens considered Miley Cyrus’ highly sexualized Vanity Fair photos “gross” and “uncool.” But the idea of sex – in particular, the promise of adult sexuality – is at the heart of a tremendous amount of what’s marketed to kids, young girls in particular.
Marketers call it KGOY: Kids Getting Older Younger. That’s the phenomenon of children abandoning, earlier and earlier, the trappings of childhood and becoming wannabe teenagers. Perhaps the most disturbing example of this phenomenon is the increasingly early sexualization found in products aimed at girls, from clubwear-garbed Bratz and Monster High dolls to thong underwear aimed at preteens. Most recently, lingerie maker Victoria’s Secret faced criticism for its Pink collection, which the company claims is aimed at university students but is widely seen as marketing to young teens. While Victoria’s Secret denies targeting teens and younger children, other retailers who have traditionally catered to teens and twenty-somethings have recently created new brands aimed at children. A 2012 study done at Kenyon College in Ohio found that a quarter of the girls’ clothes on display at 15 popular children’s retailers had sexualizing characteristics such as lingerie-like colours, fabrics and patterns.
One reason for this is the tremendous amount of spending children, especially “tweens” (eight- to 12-year-olds), now control: roughly $40 billion a year of their own money, in addition to $150 billion of their parents’. But it’s also because kids are now much more receptive to advertising messages traditionally aimed at teens. As branding strategist Eli Portnoy told the Orlando Sentinel, “Little kids are so status-conscious about clothing now, more than ever. It was a natural evolution for young college, teenage brands –‘Why not go after them younger and get them hooked into our brands?’” In other words, girls don’t necessarily want to be sexy, but to be popular. One study found that girls as young as six were more likely to describe a doll as being popular if she was wearing “sexy” clothes. Like princess dresses, sexualized clothes are essentially costumes; the difference is that the girls wearing them are dressing up as teenagers, perceiving the clothing not as “sexy” but as “stylish” or “grown up”.
Though we generally put considerable effort into protecting young children from sexualized imagery, it’s actually tweens and young teens that are the most vulnerable, with thirteen- to fourteen-year-old girls the most likely to be influenced by media representations. All of this can be mystifying for parents whose daughters are just getting over their Disney princess obsession, but the line between Belle or Ariel and Britney – or between Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus and Vanity Fair Miley Cyrus – is less clear than it might appear. In fact, as Sharon Lamb, co-author of the book Packaging Girlhood,points out, “the natural progression from pale, innocent pink is not to other colors. It’s to hot, sexy pink.” In each case girls are being presented with an extremely narrow definition of femininity, one which is largely focused on how you are seen by others.
That progression can even be seen when comparing female Disney characters in movies to how they appear in merchandising. Probably the most striking case was Merida from the Pixar movie Brave, who underwent a transformation from the tomboy archer of the film – who is never seen without her bow and arrow – to a prettified, sexualized and unarmed “Disney princess.” The film’s co-director Brenda Chapman responded to the change by saying, “When little girls say they like it because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and the skinny aspect of the new version.”
The 2010 Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls suggests that focusing on how others see you, which it refers to as “self-objectification”, can be responsible for a wide range of negative effects from impaired athletic performance to lower math scores. The report also links sexualization with depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. Of course, young boys, who are forming their ideas of masculinity and femininity at the same time as girls, are also influenced by sexualization in their attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. Rather than being pushed to be sexy, boys are vulnerable to depictions of “hyper-masculinity”, an extremely constraining gender image that values violence, toughness, a willingness to take risks and having little regard for women. A 2013 study found that half of ads in magazines aimed at men reflected the hyper-masculine ideal: in some magazines that number rose to 90 per cent.
This isn’t an issue that’s under the radar: a 2013 survey commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that nine in ten Canadians agree that sexualized media images are a problem for girls growing up in Canada. What’s less clear, though, is what to do about it. A good first step can be to check our own attitudes: research has shown that media effects are much more powerful when they reinforce messages kids are already getting from their parents. We can talk to our children about why this clothing is problematic. We can point out how they have many sides to their personalities – they may be artistic, athletic, compassionate, involved and a dozen other things which are all steamrollered by these clothes into a single image of “sexy”. We can encourage girls to take part in sports and other physical activities, which have been shown to reduce the impact of media messages about sex and femininity. And with older children, it’s important to be open with them in talking about healthy sexuality so that the messages they get through advertising and other media don’t define their ideas of sex or of gender roles.
It can be tempting to limit kids’ exposure to media, and this can be a good choice for younger children. But as kids get older – particularly as they reach those most vulnerable tween and early-teen years – this becomes increasingly difficult. Moreover, there’s significant evidence that parents critically co-viewing media with their kids is more effective than banning or controlling what they watch: using media as an opportunity to discuss sexualization and related issues reduces the association of sexiness with popularity.
These topics can also be addressed through media education in schools and kids can be encouraged to advocate for media portrayals that reflect who they are – like the 200,000 people who signed the petition that convinced Disney to let Merida keep her messy hair and her bow and arrow.