In a recent post, Push Up Bikini Tops for Kids?, I talked about a push-up top being marketed to young adolescents. Many writers and children’s rights activists that believed that it was inappropriate decried this marketing of sexuality to young girls. At this point, the company has apparently bowed to the weight of pressure and removed the “push up” label from all bikini tops. This is good news. It’s one drop in the bucket, certainly, but it does show that with consumer pressure, inappropriate marketing schemes can be changed.
What disturbs me most about this type of marketing to children goes deeper than the language that is being sold to kids. It’s the idea that young girls are being told in so many ways that their developing sexuality should be as an object of desire, rather than as an agent. After all, what is the point of a push up bikini top, except to enhance the appearance of the breasts in order to draw attention and increase desire? The pervasive sexualization of females aimed at ever-younger children draws our attention to a larger societal issue. When the idea is promoted that a girl’s power and value come primarily from her appearance, it is difficult for young women developing their identity not to equate the two; thus, “ I am how I make another person feel.”
This is not a healthy way to identify oneself. Research has shown again and again that a young woman’s ability to understand her own sexuality and desires is directly related to her ability to act as an agent in relationships. Acting as an agent is about making decisions that are responsible and self-affirming. When we teach young girls that their sexuality is wrapped up in being objects rather than agents, we are teaching them to view themselves in terms of what they can do for someone else. Girls who buy this message of objectivity are more easily coerced into sexual relationships and behaviors than are girls who view themselves as agents.
This is deeply unsettling. As parents and people who care about children, we want the kids in our lives to understand their sexuality in the context of their identity as a whole. We want them to learn to make decisions about sexual behaviors based on their own value systems, rather than feeling pressured to succumb to those of others. We want them to be able to stand up for themselves and their own desires rather than feeling that they need to give in to being the object of someone else’s desire. But how do we do that? Here are some specific ideas:
I could go on and on here. The main point is that as children are forming their understanding of who they are (IDENTITY), sexualized media is sending a toxic message to young girls that their appearance and their ability to get sexual attention is one of the most important things about them. We need to send a different message. We need to help the kids in our lives see that their identity is made up of many different components, one of which is their sexuality. And, we need to equip them to see themselves as AGENTS in their own sexuality rather than simply as OBJECTS. Contextualizing sexuality, rather than setting it apart and glamorizing it, allows a child to understand this part of themselves and see themselves as making decisions about sexuality, rather than having sexualized media make decisions for them.