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, Sex SexineSS
ody suits under minis; abayas that fit a little too suggestively; shaylas that are draped sensuously; tank-tops and thong-revealing jeans; necklines that leave little to the imagination; heavy – almost geisha-esque – make-up; practiced sway of the hips... fashionable you would think, if we were talking about young ladies. But it’s scary, when it’s children, still shy of their teens, who fit the description. Even in a country like Qatar, where dressing is by and large conservative – and, skin show is less – one can’t miss the precocity. The word ‘sexy’ itself is used with such gay, ignorant abandon. Anything appealing is dubbed ‘sexy’ – be it the latest mobile phone, video game or album. Not to mention a person. It seems social and cultural grounding is struggling to be heard against the might of big businesses and the media. From prescription glasses to undergar-
By VANI SARASWATHI
In 2000, Diane and Jean presented together at a conference and saw how the issues that concerned them both were powerfully connected. They realised that they could combine forces and write a book that dealt with the sexualisation of childhood beginning with early childhood and continuing through adolescence. They felt this was the best way to help the wider community understand what was going on and what could be done about it. The book came into being following years of work in related areas. Diane’s work has always focused on how various forces in society – such as media, violence, and marketing – affect preschool and elementary children›s development, learning and behaviour. She realised something new was happening in the middle 1980’s after the Federal Communications Commission in the United States deregulated children’s television. “For the first time, programmes could be created to market toys and other products to children. Programmes immediately became more gender divided – with violence marketed to boys (eg, Transformers and Power Rangers) and an emphasis on appearance and sexiness marketed to girls (eg, My Little Pony and Disney Princesses). Since deregulation, there has been a steady escalation in the violence and sexualisation in the media and in products directed at children,” she says.
DIANe e LeVIN (LeFT) AND JeAN KILBoURNe
About five or six years ago, Diane began to hear parents talking about having a hard time with younger children and increasingly extreme issues related to the sexualisation of their children. Their old approaches weren›t working and they wanted help. Jean started examining gender in advertising in the late 1960s. She discussed the sexualisation of young girls in her first film Killing Us Softly. She was especially interested in the effects of the media on adolescents.
ments, from school stationery to chewing gum, it is tough to find something that isn’t contaminated by a Bratz or a Barbie or a Power Ranger or an Anime. Have you tried shopping for a 7-yearold lately? It’s eerie how most clothes are a miniature of what you would find in the adults’ section – necklines that are meant to show off a cleavage, low rise jeans (seriously, are the designers playing some kind of a prank?) and bikinis. The glitz of celebrities intoxicates every interaction and every consumption of children who can be as young as 12-18 months. How do you handle a second grader whose career ambition is fame and fancy dressing, and her role-models are precocious kids from ‘children’s’ television? These gnawing, crippling worries that most parents face today find an echo in the book, So Sexy So Soon, authored by Diane E Levin, PhD, and Jean Kilbourne, EdD, internationally recognised experts in early childhood development and the impact of
the media on children and teens. In an interview to Woman Today, Diane and Jean speak about the book and the issue, and suggest how parents can attempt to get back in control.
Do you think it is healthy or fair to blame the meDia for most social evils or issues? When Will parents anD teachers take responsibility? Where Do We DraW the line anD When Do We start saying no – the last barbie, ‘chilDren’s animation’ that has sexual innuenDos?
The media and marketers use sexual imagery and violence to capture boys’ and girls’ attention and market products to them. So yes, we do blame the media for making it much harder for parents to do their job. Parents can learn a lot about helping their children deal with the sexualised childhood and can influence the lessons they learn.
“It is time to stop blaming parents for the sexualisation of childhood... By merely saying no, turns parents and children into enemies and cuts them off from influencing the lessons their children learn from what they see.”
But society should be supporting parents in their efforts, not making it harder at every turn for them to do their job. Parents are often told that it is their job to ‘just say NO!’ to all of the inappropriate sexualised content out there and that this will solve the problem. But even if parents said ‘no’ all the time, there still would be a big problem. Big business makes sure there is absolutely no way parents can fully hold back the floodgates on their own. In the words of one very frustrated parent, “You can’t say ‘no’ to everything! Even when you do say ‘no’, much of what you say ‘no’ to slips into your child’s life anyway – at a friend’s house or as a birthday gift from a
Thong panties, padded bras, and risqué Halloween costumes for young girls. Tshirts that boast ‘Chick Magnet’ for toddler boys. Sexy content on almost every television channel, as well as in books, movies, video games, and even cartoons. Hot, young female pop stars wearing provocative clothing and dancing suggestively while singing songs with sexual and sometimes violent lyrics. These products are marketed aggressively to our children; these stars are held up for our young daughters to emulate – and for our sons to see as objects of desire. Popular culture and technology inundate our children with an onslaught of mixed messages at earlier ages than ever before. Corporations capitalise on this disturbing trend, and without the emotional sophistication to understand what they are doing and seeing, kids are getting into increasing trouble emotionally and socially; some may even to engage in precocious sexual behaviour. Parents are left shaking their heads, wondering: How did this happen? What can we do? (From sosexysosoon.com)
A four-year-old girl, in the dramatic play area of her preschool, begins swaying her hips and singing, “Baby, I›m your slave. I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave.” When her teacher goes over to talk to her about it, she volunteers that she learned the song from her eight-year-old sister. After doing a bit of research, the teacher discovers that the words are from a highly popular Justin Timberlake song. Halloween costumes for young girls are so suggestive and risqué these days that Newsweek runs a story titled Eye Candy: Little Girls Halloween Costumes Are Looking More Like They Were Designed by Victoria’s Secret Every Year. Are We Prudes or Is This Practically Kiddie Porn? A six-year-old casually asks at dinner, “What’s a blow job?” Before his parents can respond, his ten-year-old sister knowingly screeches, “oh my God, I can’t believe he asked that!” An eight-year-old boy comes home and reports to his father that he didn’t know what to do when his friend showed him pornography on the Internet during a play date at the friend’s house. (Excerpt from the introduction to the book)
friend or relative. This was true when my child was four and it’s even truer now that she’s fourteen! And it’s not good for anybody when parents and children treat each other like enemies all the time.” It is time to stop blaming parents for the sexualisation of childhood. While knowing how to say ‘no’ well is an essential parenting skill, no amount of saying ‘no’ can offset the harm that today’s sexualisation is having on children and families. Just saying no, turns parents and children into enemies and cuts parents off from influencing
the lessons their children learn from what they see. Everyone who cares about children needs to work to replace this empty slogan with education and actions that will make a difference.
at What age Do We start aDDressing these issues With our chilDren? shoulDn’t the boys be eDucateD too, since they WoulD reinforce stereotypes?
When we first talked about writing this book, we both agreed that it had to be about
“...we need to help both girls and boys deal with the sexualisation of childhood from a very young age. But we need to do it in ways that match the level of development and unique experiences of each child.”
boys as well as girls and that it had to start with early childhood. The foundation for later sexual development and behaviour is formed when children are young. Bombarding children with inappropriate and harmful sexualised imagery undermines this foundation. What children see can frighten and confuse them and seriously harm their ability to grow up to have healthy attitudes about themselves and their bodies, and to have caring relationships. This happens with boys as well as girls. Girls are taught to define success and happiness as being pretty and owning the ‘right’ things. Boys are taught a very narrow definition of masculinity, based on toughness and insensitivity and to judge girls by how they look and dress. Therefore, we need to help both girls and boys deal with the sexualisation of childhood from a very young age. But we need to do it in ways that match the level of development and unique experiences of each child. In So Sexy So Soon, we give many examples of parents actually doing this.
a multi-cultural society coupleD With unrestricteD information to access; are We fighting a losing battle?
We might be fighting a losing battle – but it is one we will definitely lose if we don’t fight. We have to address this as a public health issue and use public policy and other strategies to change the environment, just as we have done with tobacco and HIV. It’s important to work to elect officials who will be on our side rather than on the side of these huge industries. Among other things, we need to work for campaign finance reform in the United States so that politicians will not be beholden to these industries and can make policy for the good of the public and of children. Other countries will need to find their own ways to get their govern-
it’s all out War. Common sense pitted against marketing jazz.
Children growing up today are bombarded from a very early age with graphic messages about sex and sexiness in the media and popular culture. For instance, younger children have Bratz dolls, which surpassed the sales of Barbie dolls in 2006, and Star Wars action figures, which experience an explosion of sales of highly realistic violent toys every time a movie is released. As children get a little older there is the Manhunt II video game, an extremely violent game that created a firestorm of protest upon its release for not carrying an A (Adult) rating that would have kept it from the hands of children and youth, and Victoria’s Secret thong panties for tweens (8-12 year-olds) and teens. Many industries make an obscene amount of money using sex and violence to market their products to children. Whatever their race, ethnic group, economic status, or gender, and whether they can afford to buy a lot or very few of these products, children are deeply affected. We have heard scores of stories, such as the ones above, about children who are learning to look and act in ways that disturb and even shock many adults. (Excerpt from the introduction to the book)
ments involved. We take heart from the success we’ve had with tobacco. That battle isn’t over but we have made tremendous progress.
Parenting tiPs from CounteraCting sexualisation
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Jean and diane.
Limit exposure to sexual content in media and pop culture. Work with your children to develop rules and routines about their TV watching and media use. Keep up with children’s media and popular culture. Collect information from the children themselves. Make sure you look at the most popular items, at least a couple of times, so you are able to talk with your children about them. When you do need to set limits or say ‘no’, try to do it in a constructive wayrather than a punitive way (by using your power over children to get your way). Let children know its okay to raise any and all issues with you, including sexual issues. Try not to blame children or make them feel guilty or ashamed when they do or say something that seems inappropriate. Try to take your child’s point of view and see the world through his or her eyes. Help your children expand their imaginations by suggesting new ways for them to play with toys. For example, instead of ‘playing house’ with dolls, they might send their toys on a backyard archaeological adventure. Counteract the narrow gender stereotypes in today’s media: ask your son to help you cook; get your daughter outside to play ball. Help boys and girls find appealing role models that provide alternative images to increasingly influential celebrity culture with its superstar icons. You can ask your children’s teachers and school to keep parents informed about issues that come up in school related to the sexualised culture and what is being done about them.
We have places in europe Where the ‘burqini’ is banneD, but bikinis are permitteD. so What are We telling our chilDren? that putting our boDy on Display is okay, but covering it is regressive?
We think this issue is more about the separation of church and State than about sexuality.
What is the most common question stuDents ask you?
We both lecture on several different topics, so the questions vary. Jean: I am most commonly asked how I got into this work (the work of being an activist and a media critic). I think that students often feel powerless and overwhelmed and are curious about people who are trying to change the world. The second most common category of questions is about how to help loved ones – friends and family members with eating disorders or addictions, for example.
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anD the one parents ask?
Diane : They ask many questions about how to protect children from exposure and how to deal with the content that filters in – such things that they see affecting their children’s behaviour. In answering these questions, I try to show that we need to work with children in ways that take into account that young children do not think the way adults do. Therefore, we need to start with the meaning children make of what they see. Jean: Parents most often ask for advice about dealing with teenagers about a variety of issues – eating disorders, negative body image, addiction, sexual harassment, and more. I address these issues and talks about what parents can do but she (Diane) always emphasises that these are public health issues and that we have to work together to create a healthier and safer environment for all children
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for your teenager, you can...
Do not allow computers and televisions in your teen’s bedroom. Have them use these items in a family or common room where you can occasionally glance at what they are watching on TV or websites they are visiting online. Do not buy inappropriate clothing, games, DVDs, CDs and other media for your teens, and set an example by limiting your own consumption. Join the internet social networking sites your teen is involved in, like MySpace and Facebook to get a sense of what’s going on and monitor content of photos and messages they post. Check out YouTube. Avoid sexist comments about yourself, and ask questions about any sexist comments you hear from your teen.
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