You may have noticed: Troll Dolls got a makeover, Abercrombie and Fitch marketed push-up bras and “Cute Butt” sweatpants to young girls, and American Apparel has grown to 250 stores in 19 countries with marketing images of adolescent-looking girls in soft-porn poses, often featuring more skin than the clothing they’re selling. Do trends like this bother you when you see them? Most parents don’t think about their 8-year-olds as targets of sexualization—which assigns value to people based on their sexual appeal or behavior—but these marketing campaigns, in addition to pre-teens and teens, show that very little kids are the objects of big business, in a culture that seems out of control.
When kids see a made-up 10-year old child plastering the pages of Vogue magazine or Urban Outfitters T-shirts celebrating a 15-year old in lewd poses, kids will naturally compare themselves to these images of “success.” Clothes, toys, television, music videos, magazines, video games, internet sites, movies, and popular music all feature examples that tell kids that if they want to be accepted, they need to join the bandwagon and exploit their sexuality.
The ever-sexualized marketplace imposes strong social demands that only parents can counter. The fragile developmental struggle of teens and younger children to build confidence and develop self-esteem is undermined by cultural messages that objectify (make objects out of) them. It is up to parents to actively value them for more than their physical appearance. Parents’ values are important not just for kids’ understandings of sex but also for their basic understanding of themselves.
The consequences of sexualization are huge and negative: a delayed or damaged development of self-image, fractured self-confidence, increasing depression and anxiety, and poor body image. Sexualization places kids into premature sex roles and paves the way for them to experience sexual promiscuity or victimization.
If these trends bother you, take a look at whether your behavior might endorse these messages. Do you encourage your own children to appear “sexy?” If you have had elective plastic surgery to enhance your appearance, have you thought about the message this sends to your kids? Does your attention, praise, or affection for your children wax or wane according to the sexual attractiveness they display? Parents need to be clear about their values and what they may be conveying – and do the work to guide their children to a healthy and positive body- and self-image through clear communications. You can help your child build confidence through appropriate physical activities, by supporting choices that develop their personalities, and by demonstrating values that strengthen a positive sense of self. Intentional steps are required to correct the idea that what kids need is outside of themselves. What they seek can be acquired from you as an involved parent.
Our culture is not going to do this work. If we are passive, our children hear us agreeing with the sexualized messages encountered at every turn. As parents, we need to show our children that we value them not for the sex appeal they can display on the surface but for what they possess from within.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex (Thomas Nelson, 2012) that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information, go to dr.chirban.com, https://www.facebook.com/drchirban and https://twitter.com/drjohnchirban.