When girls grow old before their time

July 17, 2008
Toronto Star
By Nancy J. White

Push-up bras for preteens. Barely pubescent, skinny models. Thong underwear for 10-year-olds with the words "eye candy" or "wink, wink" written across them.

One toy company even sold a pink plastic pole dancing kit with a tiny garter and play money.

Enough, says author Gigi Durham in her new book, The Lolita Effect, The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It.

"We need to teach kids to be thoughtful about the motivations behind the images and ideas they are bombarded with," says Durham, who teaches media studies at the University of Iowa.

In her university class on gender and sexuality, she says, her female students wear plunging necklines. "They've never understood how they've been marketed to," she explains. "It's like watching a light bulb go on."

But Durham wants to make one thing clear: She's no prude. She calls herself a "pro-sex feminist."

"Sexuality is a natural part of human development. We need to come to a more ethical understanding of it."

That means understanding what drives the sexploitation of young girls: profits. In the mid-1990s, she says, the tween market (kids ages 8 to 12) was targeted for its spending power - $170 billion worldwide, according to Euromonitor, provider of global business information.

Not only did companies start selling more products to this age group, she says, they also marketed the ideology encouraging them to buy lipstick and other items previously aimed at older women. "It creates cradle-to-grave consumers for products intended to increase sexuality," explains Durham.

By showcasing girls, marketers also encourage grown women to strive even harder. "It takes a lot of money in anti-wrinkle cream, botox, diet and fitness products to look like a 12-year-old," says Durham. "There's huge profit in holding up young girls as the beauty ideal."

Durham also believes a patriarchal backlash, a deeper societal attitude, fuels it.

As women have broken out of old moulds, achieving progress in the workplace and politics, the image of the young girl has become more prevalent.

"It's an old-fashioned model of traditional feminity - docile, passive, small and helpless," says Durham.

The author pinpoints several myths that mass media perpetuate, creating a restrictive view of female sexuality:

1 "If you've got it, flaunt it." The less a girl wears, the "hotter," sexier she is. "It's ridiculous," says Durham. "People express sexuality in lots of ways, they're attracted to each other for many reasons."

2 A girl has to have the anatomy of a sex goddess. The Barbie-doll-type body is, sadly, still presented as the ultimate, a body not found in nature, says Durham. The result: borderline starvation, plastic surgery, and perennially dissatisfied girls and women.

3 Pretty babies. "This is the most troubling trend - we're seeing younger and younger girls, ages 11, 12, 13, as sexually charged models," says Durham, who believes these pop culture images tacitly condone the burgeoning child pornography and trafficking industries.

It's not totally new of course. In the early 1930s, points out Durham, cute little Shirley Temple played a Wild West femme fatale and impersonated actress and singer Marlene Dietrich in a series of short films known as Baby Burlesque.

"It's been hovering around the margins of social life for a longtime," says Durham. "Now it's completely mainstream. That's the difference."

4 Violence is sexy. In studying teen-targeted media, Durham found that in many violent video games, women were often highly sexualized, often prostitutes. Many horror and slasher films open with the gruesome murders of sexy teenage girls.

5 What boys like. The media coaches girls to cater to the male gaze, to subscribe to the version of femininity that's supposed to please men, explains the author. "It's never about what he can do to please you."

So how to change?

Talk to young kids about what's in commercials and in cartoons. She remembers watching Disney movies with her daughters, now ages 10 and 7, and saying, "Why do you think they dress the character like that?" " Do you think anyone in real life has a waist that small?"

As for clothing, she suggests avoiding the line "You're not leaving the house looking like that." Instead, she says, talk about the story that clothes tell. "If you wear that top, what are you saying about yourself?"

Durham would also like to see media literacy as part of school curriculum from kindergarten up.

On the media landscape, Durham likes the Canadian television show Degrassi: The Next Generation for tackling real world issues with characters who don't all look like fashion models. She also recommends several websites, including adiosbarbie.com and shaping youth.org.

She hopes her book might spark a conversation on girls' sexuality. "Slowly we can build resistance and develop newer healthier representations," says the author.