Peace. Working with youth, and even more specifically young ladies, sometimes I am taken aback by how fast they are growing up physically. What's a dangerous combination? I'll tell you...a girl with the mind of a 10 year old with the body and accompanying fashion sense of a risque' teenager or early adult. I see young girls as young as four wearing mini-skirts, big boots, and shirts that proclaim,"SEXY." I know nine year olds who already getting their nails done. For this, I hold parents responsible cuz it's the parents that purchase and endorse items that turn these babies into "little women." Society, sexism, and media also play a large role in how we socialize our girls into becoming sex objects. Not to mention young ladies eating the wrong foods with hormones that give them breasts and booties by the time they're 9. These "hot little mamas" just keep getting younger and younger...
ARE BRATZ DOLLS TOO SEXY?
By Sally Wadyka for MSN Health & Fitness
There’s something undeniably disconcerting about seeing teen and preteen girls dressed to emulate their idols like Britney Spears—decked out in butt-grazing mini skirts and tight, belly-baring T-shirts. And probably the only thing even more alarming than that sight is seeing a similarly sexy outfit on girl who’s still in kindergarten. It’s a phenomenon that has child development experts worried and some parents fighting mad.
“Little girls are being encouraged to immerse themselves in the preoccupations of adolescence,” says Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). “They are going straight from preschool to teenager and skipping over the important development stages that should take place during middle childhood.”
But it’s not just pop stars who are to blame for popularizing looks that are too sexy for grammar school. The latest culprit in this culture war is something seemingly innocent—a line of dolls. The Bratz are marketed as dolls with “a passion for fashion.” Fashions that include low-cut jeans and halter tops worn over little girl-like bodies. MGA Entertainment (the company that makes them) says the dolls are geared toward girls ages 7 to 11, but girls as young as 4 are eager to play with them too. And in a culture that glorifies fashion, runway models and celebrity cover girls, it’s no surprise that the obsession would trickle down even to preschool fashionistas. Little girls have always wanted to emulate older ones. But critics claim that the message of the wildly popular Bratz dolls (according to the manufacturer, over 145 million have been sold since they debuted in 2001) is that image is everything. “The dolls encourage girls to think about themselves as sexualized objects whose power is equated with dressing provocatively,” says Linn.
The Bratz Web site is rife with examples that seem to play to that point. While waiting for the transition from one screen to another, the message flashes “Please wait … it takes time to look this good.” And included in the “profiles” of the dolls is each one’s “favorite body part.” “Little girls shouldn’t be thinking of their body parts in that way,” says Linn. “Plus, the very idea of a ‘favorite’ part encourages you to think about your least favorite.”
But the company selling the dolls disagrees with such criticisms. “Adults see sex in everything, but kids don’t,” says Isaac Larian, CEO of MGA Entertainment. “Bratz dolls promote diversity and creativity.” He asserts that kids buy them because they are “beautiful,” and scoffs at the notion that there is anything sexual about the dolls. “I’m looking at a whole wall of them in my office, and I don’t see them wearing sexy clothes,” he says. “They’re just fantasy dolls.”
And since much of childhood play is about fantasy, what’s so bad about playing with such “fantasy” dolls? According to child development experts, kids use play as an opportunity to learn and to experiment with things from their own experience that they see in the world around them. “When young girls have an open-ended toy—like a generic baby doll—it encourages creativity,” says Diane Levin, a professor in the early childhood education department at Wheelock College in Boston. “But the scenarios of Bratz dolls tells them how to play—to dress up, do your hair, go to fashion shows.” Taken one step further, playing with these types of toys, experts assert, makes girls want to imitate the roles they see in the dolls—to dress up like them, do what they do.
The argument is that lines of Bratz clothing (similar to the dolls’ garb) and places like Club Libby Lu, where girls can dress up like their favorite pop idols (complete with hair, makeup and clothing) turn girls into living embodiments of sexy dolls. “At a time in their development when children are trying to understand what it means to be a boy or a girl, they are getting the narrowest possible image of what those gender roles mean,” says Levin. If what girls are learning as early as preschool is that they have to be sexy and attractive, that is supposedly setting them up for self-image issues and eating disorders later on.
That was the conclusion reached by the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, in a report released earlier this year. The task force defined “sexualization” as a person’s value coming only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics. The analysis of all the available research on the subject showed evidence that this sort of sexualization can negatively impact a girl’s self-confidence, body image, self-esteem, sexual development and mental health.
The existing research was all done on middle school and older girls. “It’s upsetting not to have any research on the younger girls, but we can infer from those studies that if being exposed to these things in middle school affects girls, the same images and messages probably have an even greater effect on younger girls,” says Sharon Lamb, professor of psychology at Saint Michael’s College, co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughter From Marketers’ Schemes and a member of the APA Task Force.
And while the much-maligned Bratz dolls did warrant a mention in the report, they were far from the only culprits singled out. “Even American Girl dolls are being sold with accompanying body lotion,” says Lamb. That sends a message, she says, telling girls that lotion is something they need. “And girls don’t need to be self-conscious about needing soft skin at 7 years old,” says Lamb.
The report calls out examples from across current popular culture that present equally sexual messages—in advertising, TV, movies, fashion and music. Researchers cited things like thongs sold by stores catering to “tweens” (girls ages 7 to 12) and lyrics to widely played songs (like the Pussycat Dolls “Don’tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”).
Overly sexualized images of women and girls in the media are also having a negative impact on boys’ development, say many researchers. Just as girls are learning at ever-younger ages to equate attractiveness with sexiness, boys are learning that it’s perfectly acceptable to judge girls purely on how hot they look. “It’s a confusing message for boys,” says Lamb, “and the more of these idealized images they see early on, the more dissatisfied they are likely to be with real women, and that could affect their future romantic relationships.” And the fact that these things are impacting younger and younger children means that boys and girls are both missing out on an important time in their gender development. “Middle childhood is when boys and girls should be able to be friends without sexualization getting in the way,” says Linn.
Although the pervasiveness of sexy images can make it hard for parents to combat marketing messages, there are ways to fight back. One is to get involved. The CCFC recently launched a letter-writing campaign trying to convince Scholastic Inc. to stop promoting and selling Bratz brand books through its school book fairs and clubs. It’s certainly worth trying to limit children’s exposure to inappropriate media, music, clothing, etc., but experts agree that the most important thing parents can do is communicate with their children. “Help them to recognize and go beyond these stereotypes,” says Levin. “Don’t just say ‘no’ to something, since that cuts you off from discussion.”
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer who writes regularly for Shape, Runner’s World, Real Simple and The New York Times.