Dad: I don’t think that outfit is appropriate for you to wear shopping with your friends.
Jessica: Dad, please! It’s what everybody’s wearing now.
Dad: What do you think other people might think when they see you?
Jessica: Well, that’s not my problem. It’s only clothes—can’t you lighten up?
When we and our daughters look around our culture these days, it seems clear that particularly for females, looking and acting “sexy” is supposed to be a top priority. The message starts early and stays consistent—witness “Little Hottie” T-shirts for toddler girls, bump-and-grind dance routines for middle-schoolers, the increase in high school “hookups,” and pole-dancing workshops for suburban matrons.
How do we help our girls negotiate this sexualized tsunami? We know that girls want to fit in with their peers, and it’s hard to deny them clothes, toys, or social opportunities that their friends seem to enjoy. It’s difficult to talk about sexual issues at any age, and a lot of us are stymied about how to broach the subject with younger girls.
Many parents feel helpless about counteracting these media and marketing messages, notes Wheelock College education professor Diane Levin, coauthor with media educator Jean Kilbourne of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids (Ballantine, 2008). Levin says it’s no surprise that sexualization has become a dominant worry not just for parents of teen girls but for those with younger kids.
“We are losing control over how we teach children to feel good about their bodies, about what it means to be a male or female, and about the nature of sexuality and social relationships,” Levin says. Parents are confused over what to do, she notes. Some respond to a daughter’s desires to look and act sexy by restricting her actions with little or no real discussion. Others downplay the effect of seemingly “normal” sexual messages because they don’t see any immediate and overt harm to a daughter.
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