Our 12-year-olds think thong underwear makes them cool.
Two 6th grade girls in my daughter's class recently got in a snit in the locker room after PE. Apparently, one girl (let's call her Janet) was wearing boy shorts with "love" emblazoned across the bottom. She claimed these ultra-cool undies came from Victoria's Secret. The other girl said she'd gotten the very same underwear from Target.
They were fighting about status: Did Janet have bragging rights? Or was she upgrading her Target underwear to Victoria's Secret sexiness "to get attention," as my daughter thinks?
These girls are 12 years old. Why are they arguing about this?
I am in the thick of raising daughters. In addition to my own girls, among my circle of closest friends there are a dozen daughters whose backs I'm personally trying to protect. Because I love these girls and see how vulnerable they are, the locker-room argument about Victoria's Secret underwear makes my blood boil.
You may have heard that Victoria's Secret came out blatently targeting teens and tweeners at their fashion show a few months ago: They hired pre-teen idol Justin Beiber to perform while supermodels dressed up as little girl's toys strutted around him. Literally AS the toys: one was a bike with pink streamer handles, another a pinwheel -- watch the video and see for yourself.
WATCH: Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
Between the cotton candy colors, bright toys and Beiber-fever, it is obvious to me why Victoria's Secret appeals to the bat mitzvah set. For spring break, Victoria's Secret launched the "Bright Young Things" campaign to appeal to young teens, according to Victoria Secret CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer. "When somebody's 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be?" Burgdoerfer quipped at a conference. "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."
Advertising and marketing does work like magic. That is what is so scary. This is what Victoria's Secret is teaching our daughters:
(1) Slutty is status. One of the brain changes that occurs during adolescence is a heightened attention to social hierarchy. Teens and tweeners begin taking risks in order to gain social status (like lying about where your underwear comes from). The interesting thing about this is that they tend to take the risks in the areas that their peers will recognize as status: for the drama geeks, getting a big a part in a play is status. For the "in-crowd," partying is status. And for the fashionistas (and the Justin Beiber fanatics, and tweeners that look up to college kids), risqué style is now equated with status.
(2) There is only one type of body that is acceptable. When they put supermodels in high heels, little girl costumes and bubble gum underwear on stage with Justin Beiber, they create an impossible ideal for our girls to emulate, which in turn makes them feel inadequate. Consider these statistics from the University of Washington's Teen Health and the Media:
In a study of fifth graders, both girls and boys told researchers they were dissatisfied with their own bodies after watching a music video by Britney Spears or a clip from the TV show "Friends."
53% of American girls are "unhappy with their bodies." This reaches 78% by the time girls reach seventeen.
In a survey of girls 9 and 10 years old, 40% have tried to lose weight.
As our daughters go through puberty- - a time of intense body changes -- their attention to body image is heightened. These biological and developmental changes are, in turn, amplified further by advertising. They don't call it neuromarketing for nothing: when advertising sends our girls messages about what their changing bodies should look like -- and it isn't what they do look like -- the ad causes a dopamine rush in our daughters' brains that, in turn, creates intense desire for what is being advertised.
I don't know about you, but I don't want my daughters to think of their ideal selves as uber-sexy barbie-dolls with "call me" on their panties, and I don't want them to feel inadequate compared to this brightly-colored exemplar.
(3) Boys should objectify girls. When I saw that fashion show I couldn't help but think of the Steubenville gang rape, in which a teen girl was so blatantly objectified she was used as a sex toy and dragged, unconscious, from party to party. Where do boys learn that girls are objects, accessories for their entertainment? Look no further than the media, where objectified women are the norm rather than the exception.
WATCH: Miss Representation Trailer
The media's influence is so great that a new study from the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that our brains tend to process photos of regular, everyday women as a collection of sexualized body parts, while our brains process a photos of men as whole people.
I want my girls to have boyfriends that see them for the whole people that they are, boys who treat them as individuals, not objects or a bunch of sexualized body parts. I want my girls to have meaningful intimate relationships. When they are ready to be sexually active, I want them to feel loved and cherished by their sexual partners and empowered by their sexuality -- not used and discarded like last year's Christmas present.
I do know that Victoria's Secret is not our only, or even our biggest, problem. Dozens of other companies taunt our youth with hyper-sexualized images -- the tween market is worth "$335 billion of spending power," retail analyst Hitha Prabhaker told the TODAY show Tuesday morning.
Large consumer products companies, with their gazillion-dollar marketing budgets, are influencing our kids in profound ways. As parents, we can protect them by not letting them watch commercials and by not letting them shop in (or, frankly, even near) stores like Victoria's Secret. We can -- and should -- write letters and hope that our righteous anger goes viral on Facebook. But honestly, these tactics feel profoundly inadequate compared to the marketing machines that we face. Can we win a war by boycotting the companies that hurt kids, or by simply hiding our children from the enemy?
I hope so.
But I'm also open to other ideas if you've got them.
© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and the author of Raising Happiness. She coaches and teaches online classes in order to help people bring more joy into their lives, and she writes an award-winning blog for parents and couples. Find Raising Happiness on Facebook or sign up for free Happiness Tips.