In 2009, cartoon character Dora the Explorer received a makeover. Mattel and Nickolodeon released a silhouette of her body to hype her new look as she grew up from a kid to a tween. Dora’s cropped hair had been transformed into long, flowing locks, her shorts traded for a leg-accentuating mini-skirt, and her practical shoes replaced with ballet slippers.
The makeover disturbed Chicago mom Veronica Arreola. “It was heartbreaking,” Arreola said. “Dora was positive, adventurous and smart. Then she moved to the city, lost her best friend, and gave up her backpack for a purse.”
Dora isn’t the only girl icon who has been sexed-up and dumbed down at a young age. And plenty of girls are following suit by treating their bodies as sexual objects, while parents struggle to help them develop a healthy sense of sexuality.
The phenomenon has grabbed the attention of many researchers. The American Psychological Association commissioned a task force to examine the sexualization of girls is in today’s culture, what it’s doing to society and how it can be stopped. They define sexualization as a person’s value coming solely from fitting into a narrow view sexual appeal or behavior, and becoming a “sexual object” for others to enjoy. The task force’s 2007 report is packed with shocking examples—thongs for seven to ten year old girls, Disney cartoon characters with cleavage, dolls with fishnet stockings and tube tops, toddlers with fake teeth and spray-on tans in beauty pageants.
A Big Deal
The APA’s report may be three years old, but a quick flip through some TV channels or a glance at the magazines in the checkout aisle reveals that the problem continues. The report interested many researchers, activists and journalists, but the media has continued to sexualize girls, says Eileen Zurbriggen, who chaired the task force.
Case in point: Miley Cyrus, a 17-year-old actress and singer who found fame with her Disney Channel kids show. In her music video “Can’t Be Tamed,” she gyrates her hips in a cage while wearing a low-cut black leotard and boots, then writhes on a bed of peacock feathers.
Tayler Simmons, 11, sees the effects of sexy media stars firsthand. Girls at her Atlanta, Georgia school cake on make-up and wear big earrings, although they are only in sixth grade. “They think, ‘Someday I want to be a superstar,’ so they try to act like her [Miley Cyrus] so they’ll feel like a superstar,” Simmons says. There’s also the boy factor. Simmons’s peers began dating as early as fourth grade, and they dress and act to get the attention of boys.
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