Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

Seven Going on Seventeen: Selling Sexuality to Kids


It’s Canadian Media Literacy Week (November 4 to 8, 2013). The official theme of the week: What’s Being Sold: Helping Kids Make Sense  of Marketing Messages” , will encourage educators and parents to talk to children  and teens about the marketing they encounter on a daily basis. This is an issue that APA is particularly committed to especially regarding sexualized messages directed at children (as seen in our Girls Talk: Sexualization of Girls video above). To shed more light on this issue, we are happy to cross-post this article from Media Literacy Week Canada.

Written by Matthew Johnson, Director of Education, MediaSmarts

There’s a well-known saying in the media  business that “sex sells.” Like a lot of conventional wisdom, this turns out to  be a truism that’s not entirely true: neither nudity nor sexual content  actually increases the revenues of movies or other media and sexual content in  TV ads may make viewers like them less. In fact, there’s evidence that girls  react negatively to what they recognize as sexual content: a 2008 study done at  Canterbury University in New Zealand found that tweens considered Miley Cyrus’  highly sexualized Vanity Fair photos  “gross” and “uncool.” But the idea of  sex – in particular, the promise of adult sexuality – is at the heart of a tremendous amount of what’s marketed to kids, young  girls in particular.

Marketers call it KGOY: Kids Getting Older Younger. That’s  the phenomenon of children abandoning, earlier and earlier, the trappings of  childhood and becoming wannabe teenagers. Perhaps the most disturbing example  of this phenomenon is the increasingly early sexualization found in products  aimed at girls, from clubwear-garbed Bratz and Monster High dolls to thong  underwear aimed at preteens. Most recently, lingerie maker Victoria’s Secret  faced criticism for its Pink collection, which the company claims is aimed at  university students but is widely seen as marketing to young teens. While  Victoria’s Secret denies targeting teens and younger children, other retailers  who have traditionally catered to teens and twenty-somethings have recently  created new brands aimed at children. A 2012 study done at Kenyon College  in Ohio found  that a quarter of the girls’ clothes on display at 15 popular children’s  retailers had sexualizing characteristics such as lingerie-like colours,  fabrics and patterns. One reason for this is the tremendous  amount of spending children, especially “tweens” (eight- to 12-year-olds), now  control: roughly $40 billion a year of their own money, in addition to $150  billion of their parents’. But it’s also because kids are now much more  receptive to advertising messages traditionally aimed at teens. As branding  strategist Eli Portnoy told the Orlando  Sentinel, “Little kids are so status-conscious about clothing now,  more than ever. It was a natural evolution for young college, teenage brands –‘Why  not go after them younger and get them hooked into our brands?’” In other  words, girls don’t necessarily want to be sexy, but to be popular. One study found that girls as young as six were more  likely to describe a doll as being popular if she was wearing “sexy” clothes.  Like princess dresses, sexualized clothes are essentially costumes; the  difference is that the girls wearing them are dressing up as teenagers,  perceiving the clothing not as “sexy” but as “stylish” or “grown up”.

Though we generally put considerable effort into protecting young children from  sexualized imagery, it’s actually tweens and young teens that are the most  vulnerable, with thirteen- to fourteen-year-old girls the most likely to be  influenced by media representations. All of this can be mystifying for parents  whose daughters are just getting over their Disney princess obsession, but the  line between Belle or Ariel and Britney – or between Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus and Vanity  Fair Miley Cyrus – is less clear than it might appear. In fact, as Sharon  Lamb, co-author of the book Packaging  Girlhood,points out, “the  natural progression from pale, innocent pink is not to other colors. It’s to  hot, sexy pink.” In each case girls are being presented with an extremely narrow  definition of femininity, one which is largely focused on how you are seen by  others.

That progression can even be seen when  comparing female Disney characters in movies to how they appear in  merchandising. Probably the most striking case was Merida from the Pixar movie Brave, who underwent a transformation  from the tomboy archer of the film – who is never seen without her bow and  arrow – to a prettified, sexualized and unarmed “Disney princess.” The film’s  co-director Brenda Chapman responded to the change by saying, “When little  girls say they like it because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but,  subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and the skinny  aspect of the new version.”

The 2010 Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the  Sexualization of Girls suggests that focusing on how others see you, which  it refers to as “self-objectification”, can be responsible for a wide range of  negative effects from impaired athletic performance to lower math scores. The  report also links sexualization with depression, low self-esteem and eating  disorders. Of course, young boys, who are forming their ideas of masculinity  and femininity at the same time as girls, are also influenced by sexualization  in their attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. Rather than being pushed to be  sexy, boys are vulnerable to depictions of “hyper-masculinity”, an extremely  constraining gender image that values violence, toughness, a willingness to  take risks and having little regard for women. A 2013 study found that half of  ads in magazines aimed at men reflected the hyper-masculine ideal: in some  magazines that number rose to 90 per cent.

This isn’t an issue that’s under the radar:  a 2013 survey commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that nine  in ten Canadians agree that sexualized media images are a problem for girls  growing up in Canada.  What’s less clear, though, is what to do about it. A good first step can be to  check our own attitudes: research has shown that media effects are much more  powerful when they reinforce messages kids are already getting from their  parents. We can talk to our children about why this clothing is problematic. We can point out how they have many sides to  their personalities – they may be artistic, athletic, compassionate, involved  and a dozen other things which are all steamrollered by these clothes into a  single image of “sexy”. We can encourage girls to take part in sports and other  physical activities, which have been shown to reduce the impact of media  messages about sex and femininity. And with older children, it’s important to  be open with them in talking about healthy sexuality so that the messages they  get through advertising and other media don’t define their ideas of sex or of gender  roles.

It can be tempting to limit kids’ exposure  to media, and this can be a good choice for younger children. But as kids get  older – particularly as they reach those most vulnerable tween and early-teen  years – this becomes increasingly difficult. Moreover, there’s significant  evidence that parents critically co-viewing media with their kids is more  effective than banning or controlling what they watch: using media as an  opportunity to discuss sexualization and related issues reduces the association  of sexiness with popularity.

These topics can also be addressed through  media education in schools and kids can be encouraged to advocate for media  portrayals that reflect who they are – like the 200,000 people who signed the  petition that convinced Disney to let Merida keep her messy hair and her bow  and arrow.

Learn more! Download APA resources on sexualized media messages to girls.

What Girls Can Do

What Parents Can Do

Empowering Girls: Media Literacy Resources

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