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Toddlers and Tears: The sexualization of young girls

The playground in Janesville, Wis., is crowded with first-graders, but that doesn't slow down 6-year-old Amelia. She has playing to do — swinging across the monkey bars, tumbling down the slide, twirling around the fire pole.

With a jet-black inverted bob, and bright and wildly clashing leggings, socks and sneakers, Amelia has lots to do, and needs to be able to move to do it. Faded homemade washable cat whiskers are still barely visible on her red cheeks as she runs around with her friends.

"She goes to school crazy confident," her mother Melissa Wardy said. "As long as she is dressed appropriately for the weather, and venue, she is allowed to do her thing. She's something."

Just like millions of mothers with daughters in the U.S., Wardy is keenly aware of the choices available — clothing, beauty products, extracurricular activities — to aid in shaping young girls' appearance and the impact of these choices on self-esteem.

The sexualization of girls is happening at a younger and younger age as children, even toddlers, are bombarded with a plethora of adult influences and perceptions, studies say.

Eighty percent of 10-year-old girls in the U.S. report they have been on a diet, according to a recent study, "Eating Disorders Today — Not Just a Girl Thing." The study also reported the No. 1 wish for girls from the ages 11-17 is to be thinner.

Though the importance of appearance has long been part of life for girls and women in America, ads are now targetting a younger audience, Carleton Kendrick, a Boston-based family therapist, said. Just last summer, Jours Après Lunes, a French clothing company, started a new line of children's "loungerie" — thin, revealing undergarments, which are marketed for girls as young as 3 months old.

A whole new slew of shows also push, or at least normalize, the sexualization of young girls. TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" began in January 2009, and pulled in an average of 1.3 million viewers each week. It's success spawned a number of similar shows — "Dance Moms," "Cheer Perfection" and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," a show focusing on the family and everyday life of Alana Thompson, a 6-year-old pageant contestant previously featured on Toddlers and Tiaras.

"Honey Boo Boo" quickly became a surprise smash in the world of reality shows, and was the most-watched show on television the night of Sept. 26 season finale with nearly 2.8 million viewers, just thousands more than viewers of the Fox News prime-time line up.

Vanity and appearance are the themes of these shows centered around competition, with the parents as driving forces pushing their children to be the best in dance, cheer or beauty pageants.

"As people should know, but maybe don't, all shows of this kind … are heavily edited for sensationalism," Kendrick said. "It's like these girls don't have a chance. They're being raised to think this is healthy. The entire media culture should not be who is raising these children."

So sexy so soon

Just as she encourages Amelia to run around the playground, get a little dirty and show that she can play just as much as any boy, Wardy works on keeping her daughter's closet full of age-appropriate clothing, her toy box full of playthings to encourage positive playtime and everyday conversation full of uplifting discussion about body image and self confidence, instead of bringing home influences that foster sexualization at any age. To sexualize is to make something sexual, which is a role meant for adulthood.

Kendrick, family therapist and author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's," has been working with families, including young girls and their parents for almost 40 years and has seen the importance of appearance gradually shift to younger and younger girls for just as long.

"I pay a lot of attention to how children refer to their ideal selves, what they want to be. What 11-year-old girls were wrestling with years ago, we have ramped that down to young elementary school years," said Kendrick, who is from Boston. "I have girls in the fourth grade saying they need to go on a diet. They are healthy looking, fit girls but they are taking their cues from the bombarding of the media."

Researchers did a study looking at the self-sexualization of girls ages 6 to 9 at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in July. They showed girls two different dolls, one in tight, revealing clothing, the other in a modest but popular looking outfit. The researchers asked the girls to choose which doll looked most like themselves, which represented how they would like to look, which looked like the popular girls at school and which doll they would rather play with.

Sixty-eight percent of the girls said the sexy doll looked most like how they would like to look, and 72 percent reported that the sexy doll was more popular than the non-sexy doll.

"My whole issue with sexualization is that it robs girls of girlhood," Wardy said. "They should be out being creative and imaginative, and when they focus on being sexy women it takes away learning opportunities. It takes away the beauty of childhood."

Wardy is founder of a business, Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, which provides age-appropriate clothing fit for the strains of playing and rough housing in which children should be involved. She believes stark differences and gaps between genders develop sooner than they should, if girls can't play as hard and much as their boy peers.

"Girls are like ornaments, what they are wearing is so tight or revealing. They are losing how to take up space in the world," Wardy said. "Taking risks in childhood is so important, to push boundaries and to be with peers. You see girls standing around talking and boys are playing hard. That's my issue with the sexualization of clothing — part of it is making the girls so sexy so soon."

The effects of sexualizing young girls can highly damage self-esteem and are often long lasting.

"When we sexualize girls it has a real detrimental effect, it hurries them along and asks them to grow up and adhere to a standard that isn't natural to them — that what's natural and beautiful is being older than they are," said Dr. Robyn Silverman of New Jersey, a child and teen development specialist and author of the book "Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It."

"If you are telling a girl she needs to be sexy and she is being evaluated for her appearance at all times she isn't going to be fully aware at all times," Silverman said.

Toddlers and Tiaras

"All those girls are ugly," one 3-year-old beauty pageant contestant on "Toddlers and Tiaras" says of her competition for an upcoming pageant in Las Vegas. She sits amongst dozens of trophies and sashes in her bedroom with her mom, having not even arrived at the competition yet. And after taking the stage days later, she does prove to be one of the prettiest by taking the Grand Supreme title.

It's not just girls who participate in pageants who may have a warped view of the importance of physical beauty, researchers say. Girls who view reality television regularly focus more on the value of physical appearance than anything else, according to a 2011 study by the Girl Scouts Research Institute looking at the effect reality television on young girls.

Of the 1,141 interviews with girls age 11-17 more than one-third (38 percent) of regular reality show viewers think a girl's value is based on the way she looks, as opposed to 28 percent of those who are not viewers. Twenty-eight percent of viewers said they would rather be recognized for their outer beauty than inner.

"On (these) reality shows, with a lot of the drama that is shown, people start to think that's OK, like an everyday occurrence," Dr. Hilary Friedman, a Harvard sociologist and writer, told the Deseret News. "You can go out as a 6-year-old and wear a ton of makeup and have a bare midriff. So many see these girls on TV, and as they are watching that and when they see it become suggestive, it seems OK."

Little girls wanting to be sexy, which can interrupt the natural flow of age and social development, warps and compromises the girls' psycho-sexual development, according to Kendrick, which can lead to problems in later stages of child and adulthood.

Parents pitting girls against one another and saying "May the prettiest win" sets them up for a future where they believe success, prizes and positive attention will only come if they are the prettiest and act in a sexy manner, Kendrick said of child beauty pageants and their effect on young girls.

"At its core it is teaching girls that the best thing (they) can do, and the most attention they can get is to view (themselves) as an assemblage of body parts," Kendrick said. "And that you will focus on drawing attention to those body parts sets them up for all manner of problems in their lives — self-esteem, eating disorders, relationships they enter into."

Of those involved in reality shows about the world of child beauty pageants, like TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" Kendrick said, "Unfortunately these kids are not at all being helped by being filmed ... they are not only just pageant girls, they are TV stars and the pressure is excessive."

The role of parents

"Pageant society focuses on flaws and our society builds on that. We have to teach girls they can own their strength and adhere to their standards," Silverman said. "It is important to teach that kind of language ... if you are trying to teach them to feel good about themselves, you can not be cutting yourself down. We have to watch the negative terms we refer to."

Silverman believes there are a couple of ways in which parents can help children develop healthy self-esteem and worth, including media literacy and rules on communication in the home.

"I think it's really important that kids get involved in media literacy, at an early age for girls. You can look at catalogs and point out positive images and negative images," Silverman said. "They need to have the language and understand what is in the media has been altered by a lot of different vehicles."

Silverman has noticed when girls are informed about deceptions in the media they often become angry and want to fight back against it. Understanding the messages media is sending often leads to healthier views of self and worth for young girls.

"It's important for girls to be able to speak about themselves in a strength-based manner so they are saying what they are good at and what others are good at," Silverman said.