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Sexualizing kids: No child left behind — and fighting back

Parents, organizations decide to fight back

Editor's note: Because this is a story that deals with a sensitive subject, we have gone to great lengths to not include offensive material. Conversely, to fully show the breadth of the issue, the story includes mature subject matter.

This is second in a series. The first story looked at the sexualizing of teens. This story examines what parents and teens are doing to fight back.

Deseret News editorial: Fighting oversexualization

MIDVALE — The minute Bree Toone saw her new group of kids at the Midvale Boys' and Girls' Club this summer, she knew they needed to talk.

Girls as young as 12 were wearing high heels, short shorts and tank tops that left little to the imagination.

"They were trying to impress the boys and give off the vibe that they were confident women, when they are 12," Toone says.

She gathered about a dozen of the girls together and wrote the words "self-esteem" and "self-worth" on the board, then asked them to explain the difference.

Toone hoped to instill in them a sense of their own value, to tell them they're so much more than the makeup, clothes and boys they choose. What she hopes girls will understand is that they don't need to look sexy to be valued by society.

It's an uphill battle because the opposite message is everywhere — in music videos of 13-year-olds suggestively dancing, in posters outside of teen stores showing scantily-clad young girls bending over and even in skinnier-than-life Barbies targeted toward 3-year-olds.

In 2002, fifth graders told researchers they were dissatisfied with their bodies after watching a music video of Britney Spears or a clip from the TV Show "Friends." Not much has changed since then: a 2009 study of adolescents and young adults showed that 11- and 14-year-olds largely based their self-image on how they thought others viewed them.

The volume of these messages has increased over the last couple of decades. Clothing ads from places like Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess use sexually provocative images featuring young models. "These ads are selling more than clothing to teens — they're also selling adult sexuality," says Canada-based Media Awareness Network, which tries to help young people understand how the media works.

Experts worry that a generation of boys may grow up objectifying women and believing that they must be violent and macho to be respected or loved — unless the trend in constant messages from the media is reversed.

"Studies show that while teens received most of their information about sex from the media: magazines, TV, the Web, radio and movies; the majority say their parents shape their sexual decisions most. So it's important that parents talk to their kids about healthy sexuality, and about exploitive media images," a report by the network said.

What parents can do

Ever since an American Psychological Association task force first looked into the sexualization of girls in 2007, dozens of reports have described the consequences of messages that make women feel like sex objects. From a Women's Foundation of California report on pop culture's impact on girls and young women to a University of Missouri study released last month on how suggestive music videos impact college-age males, it's clear there are consequences to reducing a gender and a generation to body parts and sex appeal. Yet the bombardment continues. The Media Awareness Network found toy manufacturers target kids from birth to 10, rather than birth to 14, as they used to. "By treating pre-adolescents as independent, mature consumers, marketers have been very successful in removing the gatekeepers (parents) from the picture — leaving tweens vulnerable to potentially unhealthy messages about body image, sexuality, relationships and violence," Media Awareness Network wrote in a special report to parents. The report found that children 11 and older no longer consider themselves children.

Many parents feel helpless in such a world, says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, Mass., who has studied childhood and the media for more than two decades, has written eight books on the topic and recently co-wrote the book "So Sexy So Soon." She has talked with thousands of parents and says those who shop at retail stores have a hard time finding wholesome clothes and toys for their children.

"I keep thinking 'Where can it go from here?' but somehow they find ways to keep it going," she said.

And parents today need different tactics than they used to, Levin said, adding that they can't "just say no" to everything.

Steve Thomsen, a professor of communication at Brigham Young University, who has also studied the issue of media messages and sexualization, agrees.

While saying no is a natural parental instincts, he says the optimal approach is to help their child understand why a certain TV show or piece of clothing is not OK. "You'd be surprised at how reasonable children can be when rules are accompanied by an explanation," he says. "Children are always learning. If they're not learning from their mothers or fathers, they are going to learn from other sources."

A mom once pointed out to Levin that "even when you do say no, much of what you say no to slips into your child's life anyway — at a friend's house or as a birthday gift from a friend or relative."

Levin also recalled a conversation she had with a grandmother recently who told her that she doesn't like to take her 4-year-old granddaughter to the mall or restaurants because of something the little girl learned at a birthday party.

The theme was Hannah Montana, and the birthday girl's older sister taught all the 4-year-olds how to dance "sexy." Now every time a pop song comes on, the young girl will perform her "sexy moves." It has been hard to set the brakes on that one.

Jenny Wykstra, a registered nurse from West Jordan, has figured out a way to help guide her three children without just saying something is bad or wrong.

She watches TV with her teens, 15, 14 and 13. And she pays attention to what they are looking at on the computer. When something sets off the alarm bells in her brain — and it happens a lot — she asks them questions.

"Wow, check out that girl's outfit. What do you think of it?"

She's genuinely interested, she says. But she's also guiding them through a process of analyzing things critically. "What do you think they're trying to sell?" she asks when a model runs her fingers through her luxurious hair for a shampoo commercial. "Is it just shampoo?"

And Wykstra is careful not to say no to everything. "I pick my battles."

So it's no to tattoos and piercings, but she always provides the "why," too. She is willing to bend on hair styles, for example. Other things, like music videos, are case-by-case.

Jennifer Stevens Aubrey's two boys, 5 and 8, get no more than one hour of screen time a day.

"We control content and we control the time," says Aubrey, a professor at the University of Missouri.

They recently went on a car trip and relaxed the rules about video and TV time. She noticed a big difference. "The boys were dazed."

She has also reached a compromise with her oldest, who loves video games. While he can't play for more than an hour, he is allowed to program his own games. "He feels like he gets what he wants, and I feel like I am getting what I want."

These two parents are using skills Levin, the professor and researcher, talks about in her book "So Sexy So Soon" (see box).

"Parents need skills they didn't need in the past — they need more skills than they ever needed before," Levin laments.

Thomsen thinks it's vital that a young girl hears that their fathers think she's a lovely, wonderful person. "That's feedback that will maybe make her feel strong and resistant to other influences."

And parents may have more sway than they think.

A 2009 report of 1,223 children ages 8 to 12 by Youth Trends, a marketing company based in Ramsey, N.J., found that 85 percent of respondents agreed that "my family is the most important part of my life" and 70 percent said "I consider my mom and/or dad to be one of my best friends," according to an article in USA TODAY.

Whose fault is it?

Levin traces the introduction of the "sexualized childhood" to the mid-1980s deregulation of TV ads for children by the Federal Communications Commission, which allowed development of toys directly related to programming.

"Ever since then, there has been a steady escalation of gender stereotypes," Levin says, with boys' toys more violent and girls' toys more sexualized. "What parents are saying okay to today was considered extreme five years ago."

She says it has gotten harder for boys and girls to play together and get along. Marketers push strong, bulky action figures, swords and guns for boys, while girls have more Barbie dolls and princess gear to choose from than ever before. Even My Little Pony has become highly stylized, with heavy makeup and high heels. Girls are judging their bodies by age 3 and 4 and talking about diets by 5, Levin says, adding that boys make fun of other boys who ask for help, calling them "sissies" as they are told by the media that boys need to be macho and violent.

Bullying has grown as young kids feel everyone needs to act and look a certain way — the way TV stars and music artists do, she notes. She sees other problems, like diminished imagination as kids just imitate what they see on TV. It's harder to act independently and come up with your own ideas when you're following someone else's programming.

"More and more parents are concerned and trying to do things, but it's totally unfair for suppliers to make it harder and harder for parents to do their jobs. Even the best parent in the world cannot compete with the onslaught," she says.

Levin would like more regulations of TV shows and advertising geared toward children. "The government has a long history of protecting children," she says. "Until the last 15 to 20 years, there has not been that kind of debate. One has to ask, 'When there is so much evidence on the harm that is caused by what is going on, growing by leaps and bounds, isn't it the government's job to help create a safe environment in which parents can raise their kids?' "

She believes corporations drive the problem, pursuing profit without thinking about the consequences their products have on children.

An employee for a popular toy manufacturer, who did not want to be quoted, told the Deseret News that "sales speak for themselves" when asked whether a particular toy was too sexy for young girls, adding that the company's large profits were proof that "good parents are buying them" for children. Requests for comments from the manufacturers of Barbie dolls were not returned. And the maker of Bratz dolls wrote back in an email: "We are not interested in participating in this story."

"What's going on here in 21st Century America is a war of values," wrote Annie Fox, a Cornell graduate who has written several books on teens. "On one side, parents doing their best to raise healthy young adults. And what are we up against? The marketing might of multi-billion dollar corporations. You probably don't need anyone to tell you who's winning."

Fighting back

Last fall, spurred by the report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, a coalition of girls and women activists like Geena Davis (who created her own institute on gender and the media), male allies, educators and institutes like the universities of Michigan and Colorado, researchers, media experts, and policymakers launched the Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance Knowledge (SPARK) Summit. features an article about a 10-year-old model posing in lingerie for French Vogue. The article's author, Maya Brown, says you can't dismiss the sexualized child as just "the parent's fault."

"In my opinion, we should be blaming the fashion industry as a whole," she writes. "Every day, girls like Thylane (Loubry Blondeau) are made to look older than they are and put in outfits that are far from age appropriate. … The industry isn't hurting just the girls who model in photos, it is hurting girls everywhere."

Another article condemns Urban Outfitters for creating a shirt for teen girls that says "Eat Less" and another talks about a monthly "Hot Mom" contest on Facebook, where mothers submit photos of themselves. One photo from the August contest shows a woman scantily clothed and legs spread wide standing in front of a car; several have moms in skimpy bikinis.

"If we want to celebrate mothers and raise the status of motherhood in our culture — and that is something that we absolutely should want to do — then we're going to have to do so, so much better than a hot mom contest," the article concludes.

The group's website aims to drive change by showing the sexualization of young girls and women.

"We can start today and look everywhere with our eyes and notice this gender imbalance because it is by changing the cultural message that women and girls are less important that we will be able to empower women to reach their full potential," one woman said at the first SPARK conference last fall in New York City, attended by 300 in person and 200 via Internet.

Jason Evert, from San Diego, is a motivational speaker who talks to students about modesty and chastity. He has spoken at schools where dances have been canceled because not only was the dancing becoming too sexual, but because the girls would be wearing dresses that were too skimpy. Some schools, he says, have introduced uniforms to control the problem.

When he asks young girls why they dress the way they do, some say it is what mannequins at the mall are wearing and it looks cute. Others say they have tried to dress modestly but that guys don't pay attention to them when they do.

"One girl told me it made her feel wanted," Evert says. "I told her, 'What are you hoping for — to be gawked at or to be loved? What do you want to be wanted for? If a guy really cares, he should want you for more than your body parts. I always tell the girls 'You will never convince boys of your dignity until you convince yourself.' "

In Utah, two women have said enough to the onslaught.

Identical twins Lexie and Lindsay Kite are working on doctorates in the University of Utah Communications Department and recently launched a campaign called Beauty Redefined that includes billboards with messages like: "You are capable of much more than being looked at" and "There is more to be than eye candy." Reagan Billboards has helped them get their message out on the Wasatch Front.

Lexie remembers sitting in a "media smarts" class as an undergraduate at Utah State University listening to her professor. "My heart pounded faster every time he talked about how women were represented and how it might affect how we see ourselves. I was 18 and knew I wanted to pursue it."

Lindsay felt the same way.

They've studied it now for years and have reached a conclusion. "Sexualization of women and little girls is so extreme, but it is also so normalized in the media," Lexie says.

They believe campaigns like theirs will not only help society think differently about media messages, it can help fight the overweight epidemic. Girls who are most dissatisfied with their bodies tend to become more sedentary over time and are less likely to follow a healthy diet, and girls who are overweight and feel more comfortable with their size are less likely to gain weight as they get older, according to a 2007 Dove international survey.

The women have a quote on their website from feminist activist and author Naomi Wolf, who wrote "The Beauty Myth": "While we cannot directly affect the images [in media], we can drain them of their power. We can turn away from them and look directly at one another. We can lift ourselves and other women out of the myth."

Aubrey, the University of Missouri professor who teaches classes to future advertisers, tries to help them see the effect certain images can have on youths. She says some students have a cynical outlook, thinking certain decisions marketers make are purely business, that they shouldn't have to think about ethics. She helps them to appreciate parents' and researchers' perspective on the matter.

"The media are a powerful force, very overwhelming," Aubrey said. "I want them to think critically about what they are doing."

After years of counseling very young children, Douglas F. Goldsmith, the executive director of the Children's Center in Salt Lake City, wishes parents would rethink sexualization and role modeling and even how praise is given. He's seen the consequences, he says: Eating disorders that were rampant 20 years ago haven't gone away. Marketing sexualized images to people who already struggle with body image — and there are lots of them — will result in serious consequences.

Depression, disordered eating, anxiety, shame and substance abuse are among woes linked by studies to poor self-image.

What receives praise matters, too. Instead of telling a child she's smart or beautiful, he recommends praising traits like how nurturing she was to her doll or how hard she worked on her term paper.

He'd skip "pretty and cute," he says. "We see 5-year-olds here who are very sexualized, very focused on 'do I look cute in my dress today? This is what the boys will like.' Four- and 5-year-olds are indoctrinated at that level."

Theresa Dvorak, a sports dietician at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray, knows firsthand the negative impacts media images can have on tweens and teens.

She counsels clients as young as 12 who compare themselves to what they see on TV and in magazines. "Adolescents' bodies are constantly changing and growing," Dvorak says. "Aside from infancy, this is the fastest-growing life stage. There are certain parts that are filling out faster than others, and adolescents tend to compare themselves more with each other and what they are seeing in the media."

A parent concerned a child is overweight should talk to the child's pediatrician, she says. The focus should not be on diet, but on encouraging children to eat healthy foods. Movement is also important.

"Just focusing on the weight can lead to negative issues down the road or potential extremes," Dvorak says.

BYU's Thomsen notes a fundamental difference when it comes to boys and girls and weight. "One of the interesting things about disordered eating is girls see themselves as bigger than they want to be, but boys see themselves as smaller. The perception is different. But there is definitely pressure to look and be a certain way," he says.

Fighting back works

On Aug. 31, 1,600 people used the Internet to protest a shirt being sold on JC Penney's website. The $10 shirt was emblazoned with "I'm Too Pretty to Do Homework, So My Brother Has to Do It for Me." The ad copy with it said, "Who has time for homework when there's a new Justin Bieber album out? She'll love this tee that's just as cute and sassy as she is."

Within four hours of the launch of an online petition drive by, JC Penny yanked the shirt off its shelves, overwhelmed by the response.

Back in Midvale, Toone tries to compliment the girls based on their accomplishments and actions rather than on their looks. And if the boys yell obscene things at the girls, they are told to think about how they would feel if someone yelled that at their sister.

The counselors also try to help the boys change their idea of what girls are looking for and what they need to be by gathering the teen boys and girls separately every Monday and letting them talk about anything that is on their mind.

"It comes down to helping kids feel valued and loved," said Boys and Girls Club director Bob Dunn. "We give them the tools to make right decisions and work closely with the parents. We start with the 5-year-olds and make sure they feel valued."

Tips to parents

Protect children as much as possible from sexual imagery

Learn about media and pop culture in your child's life

Go beyond "just say no"; when possible, try working out solutions with your child

Establish safe channels to talk about sexual development, starting at a young age

Counteract the narrow stereotypes of boys and girls as seen in the media

Help children learn to have positive and caring relationships