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Mothers, Protect Your Daughters Against Early Sexualization

A new study shows that mothers can be the best antidote to the hyper-sexualized media.

Girls as young as six years old want to be considered sexy, according to a recent study featured in the Huffington Post.

In the study, 60 young girls were shown a series of two paper dolls. One was dressed in a trendy, but modest outfit, while the other was dressed in tight and revealing clothing. When it came to questions about which doll they wanted to look like and which girl would be more popular, the participants repeatedly chose the doll dressed to look sexy.

As much as an initial read of the article shocked me, I had to stop and ask myself, “Why are any of us surprised by this?”

Girls growing up right now are inundated with subtle messages that they need to be sexy to be valuable. With three daughters, I can’t help but notice that from clothing choices to toys, girls are being sold a definite message: being sexy is what counts.

Many parents we know are trying to swim against the current. Barbie and Bratz-branded merchandise is everywhere, but we make an effort to steer our girls toward what we consider to be characters more suited to their age, like Strawberry Shortcake or Disney princesses.

I’m not saying that Barbie is sexy in the same way Bratz dolls are. But her curves are definitely not designed to be girlish, but womanly, and in an exaggerated way. There may be an age that I think she’s appropriate for my girls, but not during the preschool years.

We also opted not to fix our HD converter box when it broke for the third time. Subscribing to Netflix was an entertainment choice, but it had hidden benefits for parents concerned about what messages kids receive through the media.

We avoid the commercials advertising too-sexy shows and toys and enjoying a new ability to help our kids choose shows. It’s easy to talk about why we don’t watch some shows when it’s a picture on a menu, rather than trying to explain why something is inappropriate while flipping channels.

On the other hand, we try not to go crazy. When my daughter was given a few second-hand Barbie movies featuring Barbie as a ballerina and a mermaid, we enthusiastically sat down to watch them. My daughter was also given a Barbie last year at church and we didn’t snatch it away. We believe that we also have a major influence on how our daughters view themselves, and the study’s findings back that up.

The study finds that when a young girl has a mother who discusses her values with her daughter and models them too, the girl’s risk of becoming too focused on sexualization decreases. Using television as a springboard for teaching also boosts a child’s chances of being insulated from sexualization.

When a child is exposed to extensive media and also has a mother who struggles with self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about her appearance several times a day, they are more inclined to become sexualized at a young age. Mothers, the study explained, play a significant role in how their child digests the information being fed to them through the media.

When it comes to clothing choices, mothers are role models. The study’s authors encourage moms to model how they want their girls to behave and dress. This is a tall order for some of us. We have to be willing to change the way we dress if it doesn’t meet the standards for the example we want to set for our kids.

I find this to be a significant challenge on a practical level. I find few tops in stores that don’t require a tank top or cotton cami underneath because they are either too low-cut or too thin to be worn alone.

However, don’t just don a burlap sack, snap off the television and consider your daughter safe. The study also said that too much protection could backfire, giving early sexualization a type of forbidden-fruit appeal to young girls. Instead, the study says to use the media and clothing choices as a conversation starter.

When I asked some friends about how they believe mothers can combat sexualization at a young age, my friend Mendy mentioned that it can be helpful to talk with a daughter about family or friends that are beautiful, to help steer her towards real-life beauty rather than the unattainable, oversexed celebrity version.

Another friend, Janet, said that she makes sure to avoid giving her daughter attention for her appearance, and instead compliments her on behaviors that illustrate positive character traits like kindness and generosity. Janet also said that she is careful to maintain her own healthy self-image, not comparing herself to others or musing that she’d like to look like someone else.

We make an effort to talk to our 5-year-old daughter about things other than her appearance, too. While I definitely think she’s cute, she’s also showing signs of being an artist. She has incredible strength for her size that goes great with her can-do attitude. When I need to unload hefty Costco purchases from the car, I yell for her to come help me. She always sticks around until the job is done.

I feel angry when I consider the many ways that the innocence of our girls is being sacrificed to make a buck. I am determined not to sit back and roll with the times. I may be just one person turning off the inappropriate shows and refusing to buy the dolls. But if a bunch of us have the same resolve, maybe the message will be heard that our girls are valuable for more than just their appearance.

Late at night after the kids are in bed, my husband and I have been watching a PBS miniseries on the national parks. One aspect of the history caught my attention. There were great men, like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, who championed the unspoiled beauty of the national landscape and fought money interests and politicians to preserve the Sierra Nevadas and Yellowstone.

Who will champion the cause for the unspoiled beauty of our daughters? If mothers will not fight against it and refuse to let our daughters be altered by the greed of our culture, who will? Our young daughters need preservation, and according to the study, we mothers are the ones with the
power to do it.

I won’t be able to protect my 5-year-old and her sisters forever. She will arrive at an age where she will be old enough to decide for herself whether she wants to look sexy. She’s not there yet, though, and I plan to keep her a little girl as long as I possibly can.

Rachel Queen July 30, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Great insight, thanks for sharing!
Karen C July 30, 2012 at 01:48 PM
Thank you! Great resource for Mothers/Daughter's is "The Secretkeeper Girl" the evens are awesome and so much fun! Teaches girls about modesty in a fun way. Have been working on getting one of these events here in south county area.
Jenny Wescoat July 30, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Thank you. I think it is a great topic, but a confusing one when it comes to practical decisions about everyday things with our girls. I've heard of Secret Keeper groups--hope something comes together. Good luck!
Jason Soroski July 30, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Great insightful piece. Thanks for bringing this topic to our attention! It is our role as parents to protect and guide our kids...
Jana Soroski August 02, 2012 at 02:52 AM
Another aspect that we as Americans fail to realize or pay attention to is that this sexualization of children leads to crimes and horrific destruction of lives. Having worked with human trafficking victims in America and overseas in India and being a mother to three girls, there is no level of fashion or popularity that is worth the price of our girls' innocence and safety. Good for you for putting into words practical ways to build our girls up and in the process protect their character and beauty.
Lisa May August 04, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Thanks for this article. I hope MANY parents read this and pay attention. I have both a 12 and 6 year old daughter. I am amazed at the clothing choices available to them. It takes more time and effort to shop for appropriate clothes, but well worth it! I also have a 10 year old son. I worry about what he sees in how these young girls dress and can act, as well. Very good topic. We got rid of cable about 6 months ago. We do have a converter box, but have added NetFlix. I love that there are more wholesome choices than regular t.v. (if you take the time to look for them). This is a great time of year for this post with school starting soon and people purchasing new school clothes. I plan to check out the Secret Keeper Girl site. If you hear of an event coming to the area, can you post it?
Jenny Wescoat August 04, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Sure, Lisa. If I hear of something, I'll post it! I agree with you that it's a very big deal for girls, and also for boys and the way they see girls/women. Thanks for reading, everyone! I appreciate your comments.

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