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Parents decry marketers who push sexuality on little girls

Being a parent has never been an easy gig. From the terrible 2's to the trying teenage years, parents spend much of their lives saying "No."

No candy for breakfast. No candy up the nose. No rings in the nose.

Today, however, parents trying to raise healthy kids say they feel like they're doing battle with the culture, constantly trying to shelter their kids from an onslaught of trash from sugary sodas to violent videos.

By turning kids into pint-size consumers — often with their own cellphones — marketers are turning them old before their time and, too often, turning them against their parents, says Jean Kilbourne, co-author of So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.

"It's a hard time to be raising children," says Susan Linn of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "No generation of parents in history has dealt with this $17 billion (children's product) industry working day and night to bypass parents and target children with messages that undermine parental values."

And just what are parents fighting?

Try padded, push-up bikini tops from Abercrombie & Fitch, designed for girls as young as 7 and 8. This is the same company that outraged parents by selling thongs for 10 year olds.

Then there's Wal-Mart's new line of makeup for 8- to 12-year-old girls, which has generated an uproar even before its official debut.

And don't forget the mini-skirted "fashion" dolls — from Bratz to Lollipop Girls and Monster High — that make Barbie look prudish.

And those are just the kiddie products.

Katy Farber, an elementary school teacher and mother from Montpelier, Vt., says she's even more worried about the growing number of small kids exposed to grown-up music and videos. Farber says she's seen girls as young as 5 trying to dress like Lady Gaga.

"When we were growing up, parents only had television to worry about," Linn says. "What parents are dealing with today that's unprecedented is the convergence of ubiquitous screen media and unfettered, unregulated commercialism. The market is so crowded today, with so many channels and so many platforms, that people have to be outrageous just to get noticed."

Marketers know that parents will resist buying many of these products.

That's why they aim their commercials straight at children, says James Steyer of Common Sense Media, which provides media education for families. And while children may not have much money, they can be incredibly effective at nagging, Steyer says. "Their goal is to get kids to force their parents to buy them stuff."

By encouraging kids to needle their parents, marketers are pushing 5- and 6-year-olds into "premature adolescent rebellion," Kilbourne says.

"Marketers have a phrase called 'pester power,' " says Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Maine's Colby College and co-author of Packaging Girlhood. "So when parents say no, they are the ones kids react against."

Peggy Orenstein, mother of a 7-year-old, says she's tired of marketers turning every trip to the supermarket into a battle of wills or a "teachable moment." Orenstein says she drew the line when her daughter, then in preschool, asked for nail polish.

"I never expected, when I had a daughter, that one of my most important jobs would be to protect her childhood from becoming a marketers' land grab," Orenstein writes in Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

She argues that even the current "princess" craze — which earned $4 billion for Disney in 2009 — simply primes preschoolers for more sexualized imagery by encouraging them to focus on beauty, fashion and appealing to boys.

Yet Orenstein says it's hard to find clothes and toys that don't urge girls to feel "pretty" or "sassy," which Orenstein sees as a "code word for sexy."

"Why are we telling girls that they aren't good enough the way they are?" she says. "And that they should define themselves by how they appear to others?"

It's easy to see why "tweens" — a word coined by marketers, not developmental psychologists — are a hot market, Orenstein says.

Toy and clothing makers can create new markets by breaking childhood into imaginary segments, each with their own distinct needs and desires, Orenstein says.

But turning little girls into tweens forces them to grow up faster, Orenstein says.

Perhaps it's not surprising that doctors are now seeing anorexia in children as young as 8 or 9, says pediatrician Chris Feudtner of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"It feels like the boundary between childhood and adolescence has eroded," Brown says. "There isn't really a childhood that is distinct anymore. It's all about looking like a grown-up girl."

Horses in high heels

Even the cartoon characters that today's moms recall from their own childhood — from Strawberry Shortcake to My Little Pony — are getting a makeover, Orenstein says.

These characters, once cute and chubby, now look older, taller, prettier — and skinnier, Orenstein notes. Playmates Toys even sells toy horses, called "Struts," that wear pink high heels. Disney's Tinker Bell — a favorite among the preschool set — wears a costume darn close to that of the Playboy Bunny.

Yet even vigilant parents can't guard against every negative influence.

Feudtner says his own 4-year-old daughter received a Barbie as a birthday present. Although he'd never paid any attention to Barbie's impossible proportions before, he now worries that she's not a good influence.

"I would never have bought her a Barbie," Feudtner says. "But I don't want to say, 'Dear, this isn't appropriate.' "

Images aimed at boys are no better, says Sharon Lamb, co-author of Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood.

Cartoons now are "teaching little boys that you bond by getting drunk," says Lamb, a psychology professor at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. "In SpongeBob, they get drunk on ice cream. In Open Season, they get drunk on chocolate. In Kid Nation, when they win, they celebrate by doing root beer shots in the saloon."

Violent or sexual imagery can cause real damage, says Victor Strasburger, a professor at the University of New Mexico and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

At least seven studies now suggest that kids who see the most sexual content at a young age may be twice as likely as others to have early sex, Strasburger says.

And kids watch a lot of media — 32 hours a week by preschool, Linn says.

Nearly 80% of children under age 5 use the Internet at least once a week, according to a new report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, an education non-profit group. Children ages 8 to 10 spend about 5.5 hours a day using media — eight hours if researchers include the additional media consumed while multitasking.

Farber says she still tries to protect her 3- and 6-year-old daughters from harmful imagery. The girls don't watch TV and rarely go shopping.

"A lot of people would think we're extreme," Farber says. "But I want our girls to have this idea that they're beautiful in all kinds of settings. They're beautiful when they're in the pool. They're beautiful when they're doing science. They're beautiful when they're doing all the things that kids do, not just when they have a matching outfit."

Yet it's not fair to lay all the blame — or responsibility — on parents, Linn says.

Parents sometimes let kids stay inside and watch TV because they're afraid of the dangers outside, either from urban crime or child predators, Linn says.

"Parents are not alone in this," Linn says. "This is a societal problem, and we have to tackle it that way."


Liz Szabo, USA Today. April 12, 2011

Copyright © 2011 USA Today, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.. All rights reserved.