The ongoing sexualization of girls has the attention of many organizations today. The work they do to slow the onslaught is important and no doubt is spreading some hesitation about the wisdom of dressing little girls to look like miniature adults.
And yet all too often, it may come to a surprise to parents when their 13-year-old starts over applying makeup and dressing in an adult manner. What was play dress-up the day before becomes the day after, it can seem, a self-image that is not age appropriate. Trouble mounts when a pre-adolescent or teenager’s adoption of a grown-up look comes with an attempt to model grown up behaviors.
Intellectual growth and emotional maturity require childhood. And however they dress, 13-year-old girls are not emotionally mature. That takes time, experience and freedom to be authentically themselves. Always skipping ahead limits a girl’s development, makes her feel as if her life is a role scripted by someone else and leaves her with problems that follow into adulthood.
The good news, at least from my perspective, is that the problem is more widely recognized today and people and organizations are addressing it.
For instance, there was a story in the New York Times last week about retailers promoting high-heel shoes for pre-teens. But the story made the point that not all retailers are participating, some are resisting the opportunity to sell high-heels to little girls and believe that it is a bad idea to rush through childhood.
The Times story offers this observation from Dr. Shari E. Miles-Cohen, senior director of the Women’s Program Office at the American Psychological Association: “The research suggests that the bombardment of sexualized images tell girls that popularity and social standing are based on looking like a sex object.”
It doesn’t get much plainer than that.
It is not high-heels alone of course. They are just one more element that tips the scales against the best interest of developing girls.
The American Psychological Association says sexualization occurs when:
1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.
2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy.
3. A person is sexually objectified-- that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.
4. And or, sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
This outcome doesn’t happen all at once. It is the result of an accumulation of observations and experiences that may begin when girls are very young.
More than brands, fashion is about symbolism. It is time well spent when parents and others help girls to critically sort out what those symbols mean, along with how and why they are promoted in advertising.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber