Body Blitz: APA Study Shows Harm of Early Sexualization

packaging-girlhood.jpgThe way marketers are “Packaging Girlhood” is making cash registers go ‘ka-ching’ and kids’ psyches go ‘ka-boom.’

Is there ANY question early sexualization of childhood is bound to have direct links to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression?

In light of the harmful new data released in the recent American Psychological Association study, many involved with our own film project, Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth have been pinging on me about why I haven’t shouted about our work.

Truthfully, it all seems painfully OBVIOUS to me, so I figured I’d shush and let the pros in sexuality research handle this one.

C’mon, when girls are encouraged to become prepubescent eye-candy before they hit the double-digits, and ‘buffed boys’ strive for ripped six-pack abs of video game icons, ‘hot’ Calvin Klein ads, and ‘pumped up’ athletic physiques, there IS going to be socioemotional fallout. “Duh.” As an irreverent tween might say.

The Washington Post article “Goodbye to Girlhood” quoted Shaping Youth Advisory Board member Dr. Sharon Lamb, who contributed her vast expertise to the APA study.

She brilliantly cited the misleading myopia that takes place when media and marketing position sexuality in such a narrow context, “Being a sexual person isn’t about being a pole dancer,” she chides.

One peek at the chapter excerpts from Packaging Girlhood written with Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown and the elephant in the living room is hard to ignore.

Age compression (as we call it in advertising) mines kids’ souls and sexuality for profit. Sharon & Lyn’s blog feature, ‘Sexualize This!’ further ties in the recklessness of marketers who bring goods like Bratz dolls onto the scene, blending profiteering and cluelessness into products that poison, pinning responsibility on the public for our ‘interpretation’ of the toys.

So, gee, do we really need Shaping Youth’s Body Blitz data too? Our field work mirrors the APA findings…What’s tumbling out of the mouths of K-5 schoolyard babes? Warning, this is sad:

  • “Do these jeans make me look fat?” (age 7, viewing her backside)
  • “Oh yeah? Well you have wet dreams!” (age 9 girl bullying a boy)
  • “Ew, she’s got, like, a unibrow! Gross! Wax, already!” (age 10 girl)
  • “Is your butt really Juicy?” (taunting a brand-wearing classmate)
  • “I’m too sexy for my shirt…” (in full chorus w/sexy dance moves)

Trust me, this is just a blip on the playground Richter scale.

When we get our Body Blitz film funding complete, I’m gonna viral market the heck out of this on the internet so parents and pundits can SEE the backwash, get their heads outta the sand and hear these mini-adults using appearance as power in play.

It boggles the mind that columnists continue to downplay media and marketing’s impact as if it’s “no big deal” and ‘twas ever thus,’ despite the APA’s findings of kids’ unhealthy physical, mental, and sexual development.

Damage has been echoed by scads of academics and health professionals from articles in TeenHealth411, and Science Daily, to our own firsthand field work…Which is why I simply couldn’t curb my tongue any longer this week when SFGate columnist Mark Morford poo-pooed media’s sexualization of kids and internet porn with a collective shrug.

Morford, who has a wickedly acerbic wit that amuses, is dead wrong in his sarcasm this round.

He sloughs off the notion that porn might warp or destroy kids’ notions of healthy sex and intimacy by citing an unnamed “study” that asked the kids themselves…As if this were a ‘no-brainer direct-to-the-source obviousness’ that the PhD academics couldn’t wrap their synapses around.

C’mon, Morford…get real; asking kids directly about the pervasiveness of online porn’s effect is like asking if they’ve ever tried drugs or sex! Ahem, talk about ‘skewed answers’ sans research controls…

Kids need to feel safe to speak freely, so I’d love to hear the methodology used before he pens this as ‘fact’ of kids being unscathed.

Be clear, early sexualization is not alarmist parental hand-wringing.

The article’s dismissiveness made me break out my poison pen, because pornification of childhood is NOT just another ho-hum generational divide.

He claims adult hysteria far outpaces what kids are going through because kids responded that they “ignored” the smut or “didn’t take it seriously at all”…

Kids being “desensitized” is an impact in itself that can’t be ‘ignored.’

Even if it’s true that tweens and teens are navigating through porn pop-ups and turning a blind eye to blinking banner ads, the harmful ‘background noise’ is sticking in psyches and numbing sexuality.

His media mockery is amusing; and I give tweens and teens credit for guiding themselves through an overblown depiction of:

...“drooling MySpace sexual predators and binge-drinking frat-boy idiots and millions of lost brain-rotted teens snorting ketamine off each other’s stolen iPods and then shooting each other in the face after playing 6 million hours of Grand Theft Auto, one giant violent sexed-up gum-snapping body-pierced eating-disorder STD-ready freak show ready to implode at the drop of a hat or the shave of a Britney.”

But here’s a larger question…why should teens even HAVE to deal with running a “T&A” gauntlet to reach adulthood as fully functioning adults without having their worldview tainted by this cultural chaos?

Why aren’t kids entitled to their own evolutionary angst without being sucked into the maelstrom of adult pathologies?

Why deprive kids of sweet hand-holding moments, butterfly tummies and gentle first kisses and usurp romance for raunchiness, plopping teens into a ‘Debbie does Dallas’ mentality of ‘pimps and hos.’

Not fair! Let kids feel the magic of intimacy as it grows out of trust and time…The tingling tension of stirrings of desire instead of tawdry unabashed lust.

As it is, we’re already seeing kids with cultural narcissism from crass celebrity emulation, and ‘all about me’ shallowness surfacing from over-consumption of a low-brow media diet.

Morford and others like him are also missing a HUGE piece of the puzzle as ever younger kids in the K-5 set are being warped and desensitized to rear-wagging, chest-shaking cha-chas.

In short? It’s profoundly clear this guy’s not a parent.

Most of the ‘calm down’ witty prose is usually written by young, edgy, yuppie hipsters with an attitude. Maybe I’m making sweeping generalizations, though I googled him and found his blog on matchdoctor.com a “free community for singles and friends.” Am I right?

So here’s the deal…

I say we round up all the pithy pundits who like to play the blame game and give media and marketing a free hall pass by saddling parents with a ‘just say no’ mentality, and let’s give them a ‘loaner’ child to ‘shadow’ for a day.

As journalists, they can take notes like WE are at Shaping Youth, whether working in the K-5, middle, or high school age groups. Reporters could then record each time they hear or see the impact of early sexualization and maybe finally see what’s going on…

Sexual chiding and verbal derailment, clothing slams, behavioral backlash, subtle urban wallpaper like cellphone screens set to Playboy bunnies, and stickers on notebooks of ‘babe-alicious booty’ talks of hotties, scoring, and ‘getting some’…appearance, appearance, appearance…

For a jiff I landed in the camp of the Washington Post writer’s group when they opined, “We shouldn’t need a scientific study to tell us that sexualizing children is damaging…” they made some good points in “Calling all fathers-save the girls” but lost me completely by dodging media and marketing’s role altogether, editorializing that we can chalk it ALL up to the absence of fathers in kids’ lives…

More parental blame games…Hooey!

Kids’ obsession about body image and objectifying themselves is surfacing in body shame and self-conciousness at ever younger ages; largely ignored in media coverage in favor of the titillation of tween exhibitionists and tarty-thong-wearing mallrats.

There’s a bounty of preadolescents ‘hiding’ breast buds in floppy sweatshirts, grimacing at the push up underwires in teeny weeny sizes and flattening their chests with sports bras.

And if you don’t think porn’s having an impact watch a tween girl’s face as she stares at a garter clad Victoria’s Secret display trying to make sense of it all.

I’ll never forget working at a talent show number when one of the moms told the 3rd grade act to pull up the crotch on their tights and got a resounding scream and “shhh, OMG, OMG, don’t call it THAT!” by a mortified Brownie troop.

Yes, young ears identify ‘crotch’ in the elementary lexicon of porn terms flinging about, even when parental context is saggy-knee stretchies and Mary Janes.

Point being? Even young kids are aware of sexual context. VERY aware.

Playground chatter has shifted…Kids ask about family incomes, how big their house is, what kind of car they drive, where they got a certain brand of top and what it costs, who did what on which show, it’s all about consumption, appearance, judgment and media.

Once kids enter Kindergarten, the ‘bubble’ breaks and peer/media influence seep into their psyche changing their outlooks, responses, behaviors, and worldviews with 24/7 media and marketing having an undue influence on what kids eat to how they act to what they wear.

Globally, as the APA study attests, the minute media enters the mix (in this case, tracking tween girls in rural Fiji) body image, weight control and early sexualization enters the fray as TV becomes the incontestable distribution channel for angst and behavioral standards.

Kaiser Family Foundation cites 77% of prime time material gives sexual cues and girls were three times more likely to appear in lingerie or sleepwear than their counterparts.

I see these cues constantly…whether it’s girls taking distorted behavioral pleasure from boys ‘crushing on them’ (even if they’re younger tots!) to self-esteem gleaned from Club Penguin’s invitation to a boy’s virtual igloo, girls are taking their cues off of how they come across to the opposite sex at ever younger ages.

Dr. Lamb mentions the Barbie beauty bit now starts in preschool, which I find ironic, since developmentally, their motor skills are not even fine tuned to dress one! Ever watched those tiny little hands struggling with getting an outfit on a doll? Gotta be frustrating.

I’m not saying there should be a moral panic to default to ‘must wear sleeves’ prom gowns, (though modest is hottest resonates beyond moms; entrepreneurs like this may very well bloom & grow) —it’s just that kids are placing very distorted value on their looks, with appearance-based sexuality that fouls up their long term well-being.

The APA’s definition of sexualization? “…When a person’s value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another’s sexual use.”

Yeah. Been there, done that. Got the tee shirt.

As a brainiac in a blonde persona I’ve battled my entire life to mitigate the damage of looks over substance…it’s a poignant reminder of how I came to be on this track with such vehemence and zeal in the first place.

So here I am…one centrist, nonpartisan, outspoken, hot under the collar media mama, riled about the direction society’s taking kids by pushing them into a narrowcast falsified formula of body-driven drek. As I’ve said before:

The price we pay for sexualizing childhood will cost us all.

It doesn’t take an APA study to prove it.

Comments

  1. Eye carumba! I like so totally agree with you, you know? (Sorry, just had to get the Hollywood girly West Coast accent happening).

    I have boys and I have to raise them with sexual integrity when the media is blatantly pushing them in the opposite direction. If only there was accountability for media (and in real terms there isn’t), we wouldn’t have a news broadcast shaming a paedophile then throwing to a commercial break which sexualises chidren then returning to the sports desk where someone makes a smutty comment about a 15 year old female tennis player that they wouldn’t dare make about her if she was wearing her school uniform.

    (Deep breath) There’s my ranting done for the day. I’m glad you are doing something about this.

  2. Pete, your posting is hilarious! I’m about to check out your blog, as I love the name, “freakedoutfathers.com” and am getting tons of great feedback from Australia…You guys (and the Canadians & UK, frankly!) are ALL clearly ahead of the game compared with the ‘anything goes-sell-your-kid-for-a-buck’ media machine in the USA…Thanks for the note, it’s words like yours that inspire me to ‘keep on keepin’ on…Best, Amy

  3. Amy, if only we were ahead of the USA. The sad truth is that Australia is lagging behind – our Politicians and Media seem to compulsively look at things that were happening in the USA 2-5 years ago then copy it. (Although we had our finger on the pulse with Iraq didn’t we?)

    There are some people who love their kids and won’t roll over for Big Business. Google search the Parent’s Jury Australia.

  4. Ironically, I have a feature in my queue on Parent’s Jury that I’m pursuing, as I think it’s a brilliant idea! Does it have full buy in with the parent posse over there? It makes SO much sense to me…I’d love to interview them on Skype…

    We’re also doing a piece on the UK’s “Which?” study/interactive media literacy which is great. Richard from SustainWeb.org referred me. Here’s a preview of their ‘interactive bedroom’ we’ll be covering later this week: http://tinyurl.com/3xrz9f

    Keep me posted on the Aussie circuit, pls!

    Love your blog and am adding you to our post on ‘fatherhood faves/”poppa picks” to link in context: http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=228

  5. Thanks Amy, similarly, I’m including you in a list of “nuggets” of wisdom for parents in this month’s e-zine from my Great Circle site.

  6. Hi there Amy, thanks for visiting my blog. As Pete says, here in Australia, we tend to follow the US by about 2 – 5 years, so it’s really interesting (and scary) for me to see the food marketing techniques happening in the States. Advertising to kids is a hot topic over here, although our government is staunchly resisting doing anything – it seems (yet again) that it’s all the fault of the parents.

    Thought you might be interested in this link (if I get my html correct). David Jones, one of our large department stores, are suing a group called the Australia Institute, and specifically it’s director, Clive Hamilton, over claims he made that their advertising eroticised and sexually exploited children. It’s believed to be the first time a court has considered the sexualisation of children in advertising.

  7. Interesting. I grew up as a global kid with a loooooong stint in Hawaii, where life was in a ‘time warp/lag’ too…Yet somehow it seems Australia is far AHEAD of the USA in terms of food mktg. being seen as a hot topic (‘parents jury’ etc.) since we seem to be fixated on putting ‘profit over public interest’ as a fiscal focus time & again…

    The ‘vote w/your pocketbook’ bit doesn’t quite work here yet, as many consumers seem terribly gullible and vulnerable to marketing charms, lured into the latest-n-greatest ‘what’s new’ of a rather vapid/myopic/mindset.

    Thanks for the link, yes, I want to do a follow up about that story. MediaSnackers forwarded it to me from the U.K. awhile back & I quite frankly forgot to pursue it! Seems like something I should personally be watching, since it scares the socks off of me since it looks like I’ll need to start crafting a ‘hold harmless’ clause for my editorial tongue! Could be a ‘precedent’ issue? Ah well, c’est la vie…I’m not easily silenced. ;-)

  8. ZeleNeeflyMak says:

    There are 5 houses in five different colors
    In each house lives a different nationality.
    These 5 owners drink a certain beverage, smoke a certain brand of cigar and keep a certain pet.
    No owners have the same pet, smoke the same brand of cigar, or drink the same beverage.

    The CLUES:

    The Brit lives in the Red house.
    The Swede keeps dogs as pets.
    The Dane Drinks tea.
    The Green House is on the left of the White House.
    The Green House’s owner drinks coffee.
    The person who smokes Pall Mall rears birds.
    The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhill.
    The man in the center house drinks milk.
    The Norwegian lives in the first house.
    The man who smokes Blends lives next to the one who keeps cats
    The man who keeps horses lives next to the man who smokes Dunhill.
    The man who smokes Blue Master drinks beer.
    The German smokes Prince.
    The Norwegian lives next to the Blue House.
    The man who smokes Blends has a neighbor who drinks water.
    The QUESTION:

    Who owns the fish?

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