Sexualising girls: what's missing from the conversation?

Facing up to the real problem ...
Facing up to the real problem ... 

Although I'm critical of the way we discuss the sexualisation of little girls I'm still glad we're having the conversation. It took having a daughter for me to notice that there was something amiss in the shops. I simply didn’t register the existence of Bratz dolls until I had a baby girl on my hip, and then with her gaze almost level with mine, I stopped to see what she was looking at and I saw that marketing had apparently collapsed thirteen years of girlhood into one long bloom of exaggerated adolescence. We’d somehow entered a parallel universe where fishnet stockings and bra tops were supposed to make sense to and appeal to little girls.

Little girl underwear with "eye candy", "wink wink" and "who needs credit cards" written on the crotch caused some outrage but sufficient people had shrugged during the design, manufacture and purchase stages that the underwear had somehow ended up for sale in department stores before having to be removed. I think we were supposed to believe that it was all just adding to the exciting range of choices available to us as consumers.

And it wasn't just the giddy sexiness, it was also the self-aware vanity of young adulthood that had begun to define girlishness. Childhood favourites like Strawberry Shortcake and Dora the Explorer endured makeovers to emerge svelte, preening and devoid of their little girl chubbiness. And the compression of girlhood meant that, voila!, we now had high heeled booties for babies and skinny jeans for toddler girls. Then pretty soon it seemed like we didn't have an exciting range of choices available to us after all - sexy Halloween costumes were now the only costumes you could buy for girls. So, let me acknowledge, before I go any further, that while I have my problems with how we discuss the sexualisation of little girls I am mighty relieved we are discussing it so much these days. Hooray for the handful of media commentators and cranky mothers who got this ball rolling. 

1. What’s the big deal?

Not so long ago there was controversy over child models being photographed in French Vogue mimicking sultry adult poses and being dressed in women’s clothing and makeup. Everyone agreed that it was little girls looking like adults but some people still wondered what the fuss was about. Even some feminists view the concern about the sexualisation of children as really being a sneaky resurrection of female purity obsessions. To my mind, there’s nothing bad about little girls playing dress-up, or even playing with sexy dress-up ideas, if they’re genuinely choosing this play idea from a range of gender-diverse options. Shaming girls about femininity, even artificial constructs of it, is a big mistake. But the Vogue photos weren’t pictures of little girls playing - they were adults playing dress-up with little girls. That’s an important difference and we should pay attention, particularly when it is for commercial purposes. What was the magazine selling? Notably, little boys are not typically used to represent miniature versions of sexy adult men, why is that? It could be that this collapsing of sexiness and materialism into displays of girlhood is part of a wider trend in sexually objectifying women.

Why shouldn’t magazines like Vogue use young bodies to sell things? Youth is eye-poppingly gorgeous and a perfect way to grab the attention of consumers. But there’s a catch. To put it plainly, we use girls to sell everything from cars to milk drinks. When you're a girl you pretty much represent desire, and yet you’re largely a silent voice in that representation. This can make you terribly vulnerable - the appreciation of young female bodies wouldn’t be such a concern if the adult world didn’t have a leering sense of entitlement about it. The problem isn’t that girls have sexuality, the problem is that we make their sexuality a gimmick for selling products and in doing so we package and impose a very adult version of sexuality on to them.

2. But young girls are very media savvy these days.

I don’t want to suggest that girls are nothing more than helpless. Girls are not always inactive in exploring sexy fashion and it’s not like I think they should be forbidden from enjoying it either, but when we say that sexualising young girls is no big deal because they’re all savvy consumers of media and can pick and choose what they like, we are imagining a very privileged group of girls. As feminist academic, Shelley Kulperger says, that kind of assumption gives no regard to the massive differences in capacity among kids. Such thinking implicitly assumes that every girl is both well-informed and ultimately protected by parents. That same assumption can also be used to shut down the whole debate about sexualisation because it equates concern with being pro-censorship and pro-family values and really, who wants to be associated with that?

3. Then girls should stop being so provocative.


Recently parenting guru, Steve Biddulph described evidence he sees of girls being damaged by premature sexualisation. Among his statistics about anxiety, depression and eating disorders was one that seemed out of place - it was that one in five girls have their first sexual experience at 14 years of age. Unlike the other statistics Biddulph quoted, this one was potentially about girls’ pleasure. There is reason to be concerned if the data shows teenage girls are having sex with older partners or are feeling pressured to have sexual activity that they don’t want - but simply knowing some 14 year old girls are having sex doesn’t alarm me.

As a mother with a little girl I hope my daughter one day develops a happy, satisfying sex life and that it is one where she learns about her own pleasure and centres that in any sexual relationship - and if it includes fishnet stockings and bra tops than more power to her. I want her to gain that knowledge about her sexuality long before she settles down with a life partner, and part of the process will be knowing that her value is not her virginity. Because something that should be remembered in any conversation about sexualisation is that sexualisation is very different to sexuality. The former is about performance, about what’s desirable to others, which is why it is so compatible with advertising. Whereas sexuality is about embracing your own desire.

Girls need to be free to develop and explore their sexuality (or to be entirely disinterested in it for as long as they choose) - and they need to have the space to do that without a highly commercial, hyper-sexual, intensely misogynistic vision of female sexuality being imposed on them. 

4. Parents should just stop buying this stuff.

Obviously, parental choices are a big part of the solution, but there are problems with making parents the only solution. The argument “if you didn’t buy it, they wouldn’t sell it” is too simplistic. Never mind the fact that when you’re immersed in these products it can feel like there is very little real choice and that parents find it difficult to fight about purchases constantly with their children, it is an argument that on the one hand acknowledges the potential dangers of marketing but on the other sees no role for collective responsibility with it. It is an argument that reduces everything to individual parents. There are the good parents making the right decisions about their children’s clothing and toys and then there are the bad parents making the wrong decisions. That's seductive because we get to wag our fingers at the bad parents while simultaneously congratulating ourselves for being part of the good group.

More energy goes into judging other parents than into debating sexualisation. And worst of all, a lot of the condemnation resembles nothing more thoughtful than classism. For instance, I’m yet to see a mother from an upper-middle class background on the front cover of a tabloid being criticised for being a ‘trashy mother’, why is that? The other problem with the idea that parents should fix this problem is thinking parents know how to do that. Research shows the premature sexualisation of girls can cause body image issues for kids. The corresponding advice is that mothers should help their daughters overcome this self-hatred, but we live in a sexist culture that objectifies women too, how are we necessarily any better at defusing it? With all our talk of diets and wrinkle preventions we’re just as ensnared in the trap of sexual objectification.

So, what do I think needs to happen? Essentially, we need to talk about the problem of sexualising girls without dismissing the problem, without dismissing the vulnerability of childhood, without dismissing the agency of girls, and without making individual parents the skapegoat. Then, rather than collapsing childhood, we need to make girlhood a time where the possibilities are as wide open as possible for girls to develop their sense of self, including their emerging sexuality. 

What do you think about how we discuss the sexualisation of girls?