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Malika Saada Saar Headshot

Raising Daughters in an Age of Thongs for Tweens

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Last week, I attended my daughter's school dance recital. While her second grade class, thankfully, did a performance that celebrated the strength of their bodies, the third and fourth graders performed dances that were suggestively sexual in aesthetics and movement. The girls -- although not the boys -- were dressed in short shorts and tight halter tops, shaking butts and breasts that they did not have. The girls seemed uncomfortable and very self-conscious, while the boys moved with a total sense of ease and fun.

Let's be clear, I think it is really important for girls to understand their sexuality and to feel confident in their bodies. Yet, it honestly makes me uncomfortable to see 8 and 9-year-old girls sexualizing themselves and being sexualized.

Our daughters, even before their bodies take shape into adolescence and early womanhood, are encouraged to wear push-up bras, lipstick and thongs. Does this give girls a healthy sense of their sexuality -- or reduce them into eroticized commodities before they have an opportunity to understand their own bodies? Unfortunately, I believe it is the latter.

Young girls, against the cultural backdrop of sexualized imagery, are not demonstrating the behavior of liberated and self-actualized girls. In fact, it's the reverse. They are more vulnerable to low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.

And, I hate to make this juxtaposition -- especially for fear that I might be tagged a backward feminist or hyperbolic mother -- but there is a very thin divide between what I see playing out in popular culture's oversexualization of girls and the legitimization of very young girls being trafficked and sold for sex. As a human rights lawyer and advocate, I am in a daily struggle to end the exploitation and trafficking of underage girls for sex. I cannot help but see the connection between sexualizing a 12-year-old girl and then making it easy, tolerated, condoned and possible to purchase her for sex.

How do I teach my daughter to honor herself, to confidently celebrate her feminine identity -- in all its dimensions, contradictions and sacredness -- as she moves into the tween and adolescent years? How do we mothers raise our young daughters to take pride in their sexuality when it is time, and in a manner that does not play into this wrongheaded sexualization of their bodies? I hear mothers -- and fathers -- asking these questions all the time. Whether it is at school, on the play ground, or birthday parties, parents are discussing our fears about raising daughters in a culture that so quickly sexualizes them.

So, this is a shout out to other parents to make the health and well-being of our daughters a public square conversation. It is time to insist that our girls have a chance at being girls before they are subject to a suffocating landscape of merchandise, media and popular cultural imagery that turns the female body into a sexual object. And it is time to give our daughters new images of female power, agency and sexuality.