I have spent months trying to find a collection of Star Wars underpants featuring strong female characters such as Princess Leia and Ahsoka Tano for my tween daughter. I'm still looking.
If my tween were in the market for, oh, say, highly inappropriate sexy thongs, she would be awash in options, such as Victoria's Secret's just-announced "Bright Young Things."
The new product line features panties with phrases like "Dare You" and "Feeling Lucky?" on them. And how about this gem -- a lace-trimmed thong with the words, "Call me" on the front. I guess a middle-school girl needs to strip down to her thong to let the object of her affection know she is interested.
How do the powers that be spin this? Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer of Limited Brands, (of which Victoria's Secret is a subsidiary), spoke at a recent conference, describing why this lingerie will appeal to younger girls: "When somebody's 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be?" Burgdoerfer asked. "They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that's part of the magic of what we do at Pink."
Burgdoerfer may call it "magic," but I call it "sexualization." To me, the tiny sizes offered and the marketing campaign seemingly aimed at tweens and middle schoolers suggests that the company means to sell to girls younger than 15, though the company denied this on their Facebook page. Teen and tween heartthrob Justin Bieber, who is idolized by girls as young as age 8 or 9, was hired to perform during the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in November.
The proliferation of racy underwear marketed to children has drawn attention around the globe. In June 2011, the British Retail Consortium announced that it would be banning the High Street shops from selling sexualized clothing for children. Padded bras and thongs were deemed inappropriate for young children, as were clothes with suggestive slogans.
A petition has already been started on Change.org to get Victoria's Secret to stop marketing sexy lingerie to teens and tweens; maybe if enough people speak up, we can achieve the type of results that the British Retail Consortium did. And in case you have any doubts about whether or not the lingerie has crossed the line, consider that a reporter covering the "Bright Young Things" Product launch for NBC's TODAY show confessed that, "The latest campaign features underwear too racy to show here."
What is sexualization, and how does it cause problems? Many of us are so accustomed to it that we do not even question it. In my new book on social conflict, aggression and bullying in our culture, I write extensively about the phenomenon of sexualization, and how this increasingly-accepted marketing tactic contributes to problems with male-female relationships when the children grow older.
The following excerpt is from a chapter called "Stop Marketing Make-Up and Sexy Clothes to Children."
In the winter of 2011, Walmart announced that it was introducing Geogirl, a new line of cosmetics specifically designed for girls 8- to 12-years-old. The mass retailer wants a piece of the tween make-up market, which earns more than $24 million per year, with the top sellers to kids being lip gloss, eye shadow and mascara. When I heard about WalMart's expansion into kiddie makeup, my first thought was, this doesn't help the movement to prevent bullying. Parents may wonder, how is bullying at all related to make-up? The connection goes through sexualization.
According to the American Psychological Association's Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls:
There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when
- a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified -- that is, made into a thing for others' sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.
When mass retailers are marketing make-up to 8 to 12-year-old girls, unhealthy sexualization is occurring.
"I like blush, lipstick, um, mascara," a 9-year-old girl said to ABC News during a report on children wearing makeup. Of course she likes blush, lipstick, and, um, mascara. She is a kid. Katie asks me for make-up all the time. I hand her a tube of bubble-gum-flavored Chapstick and tell her to have fun. "I want something with color," Katie protests. I practically need to put a child lock on my make-up drawer to keep Annie Rose's groping little hands away from my powder and blush. And if you walk into an elementary school, be prepared to see little girls wearing lipstick and eye makeup. Toy, clothing and make-up manufacturers have a name for this phenomenon: KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger).[i] They market along strict gender lines: sexualized products for young girls and macho or violent products for young boys, pushing kids into gender-based stereotypes that harm their perceptions of each other. As soon as a 12-year-old needs a bra, the clothing stores are right there pushing a bra to her younger sister, telling her that she, too, needs breasts to be sexy and attractive. Abercrombie and Fitch is one of many retailers that offers string bikini push-ups for girls age 7 to 11. Parents of little girls are left asking in bewilderment, Where has childhood gone?
The retailers are quick to blame the parents, claiming that they are not forcing mom and dad to buy sexualized products. While there is parental accountability involved, it is not that simple. The stores enticingly market inappropriate items to young kids, and parents are in the difficult position of having to say no, not just to a single purchase, but to an entire glamorized lifestyle. Perhaps a parent has initial resolve and manages to escape the shoe store without buying high heels for her 10-year-old. But then the child begs her for a tube of lipstick at the grocery store, and a bottle of perfume at the drugstore, and a short skirt at the clothing store... the barrage is endless. In a moment of exhausted weakness, the mom purchases a pot of eye shadow, just for "fun." But the girl sneaks it out of the house and puts it on at school. Once one girl in the class starts wearing make-up, the other girls beg to wear it too.
Peggy Orenstein mulled the problem over with me. [ii] She predicted that "what's going to happen is that the cool girls are going to start wearing makeup at age 9 and 10, and then the kids who are being raised more healthily will end up being targeted and bullied for being uncool." Unfortunately, Orenstein's predictions are playing out. The "cool" girls are the ones who wear make-up, and the other girls are desperate to fit in. Worn down from picking their battles, some parents give in, and now we have a generation of 9-year-olds who wear mascara to school. What do we do with that as parents? Do we say, I'd rather have my daughter be the mean girl than the picked-on girl? Orenstein thinks the answer is to teach your girl how to value herself inside out, and to provide her with skills for conflict resolution. "It's not easy," she commiserated, "but you try to make decisions based on what you know is long-term healthy."
For generations, little kids have played dress-up at home, and for some, this includes applying mom's make-up. Nothing unusual about that. And it is perfectly appropriate for kids to get their faces painted at carnivals, amusement parks and the like. These activities are within the realm of a normal childhood. The trouble is that little girls are now applying blush, lip shadow and mascara as part of their regular grooming before leaving the house. Can't a 10-year-old be free of the social pressure to feel suitably attractive before going to school? I know a woman who refers to putting on her make-up as putting on her "face." What does that tell her children? That without painting herself up, their mother doesn't even merit having a face? Make-up alone is not where young kids end their beauty regiments and procedures. There are now spa treatments, eyebrow waxing, facials and massages marketed towards little girls between the ages of 8 and 12, and there are plenty of parents who are willing to pay for these services. "I feel it's part of hygiene. I do all of these types of things myself and I think they're better off starting young," one mother told ABC News.
Part of good hygiene for a 10-year-old does not need to include facials and electrolysis. This doesn't mean it is harmful for a girl to get a manicure on a very special occasion, such as for a birthday treat or before a big event. It is fun and enjoyable! What it means is that kids who receive a weekly mani/pedi and regular spa treatments are at risk of feeling entitled at a very young age, and this contributes to discrimination against those girls who simply get their nails trimmed by mom's clippers. We don't want kids to look down on other kids who are different, creating an "us" and "them" mentality, which allows kids to view each other as objects. Once that happens, kids (and adults) find it increasingly easy to taunt and torment someone who is Other. A 9-year-old with a freshly waxed upper lip is more likely to view a hairy-lipped peer as Other. But what is a parent to do if other kids are teasing her daughter for having a mustache? Leave her to suffer? It is a dilemma, a slippery slope of perfection, because if you allow a young girl to wax her lip hair in order to protect her from taunts, what do you do when she then wants to get a bikini wax?
Body hair has emerged as a surprisingly common reason why kids target others. An Indian mother told me, "There are some fair-haired girls in my daughter's fourth grade class who make fun of my daughter for having a lot of dark hair on her forearms. She wants to wear long sleeves every day, even when it's hot outside." While it is true that kids with poor hygiene are at higher risk of being bullied, arm hair is not a hygiene problem. The pressure for girls to maintain hairless bodies has propelled children as young as eight to seek out painful treatments such as electrolysis and waxing for body hair. Just as disturbing is the behavior of mothers who want their daughters to look perfect. Diane Fisher, owner of Eclips Salon and Eclips Kids Day Spa in McLean and Ashburn, Va., both Washington, D.C., suburbs, told todayshow.com that "I had a mother who brought her daughter in, pulled up her shirt and asked us to wax the girl's back. The hair didn't seem to be bothering the little girl, but the mom was embarrassed and wanted it done," Fisher recounted. "I told the mom to wait until the child wanted it, but she refused." The girl with the hairy back was 6 years old.
[i] Orenstein, P. (2011). Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture. New York: HarperCollins. Pg. 84-85.
[ii] Author's interview with Peggy Orenstein, April 22, 2011
- Excerpt from Carrie Goldman's highly-reviewed book, Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear