The term “age compression” has been used to describe the way that clothing, products, and experiential expectations have been shifting downward in the age bracket. Clothes that we used to expect to see on a 15 year old, we now see on a 10 year old. Cell phones used to be considered for adults only, now 66% of 8 to 18 year olds own their own phones. This article from 2009 in the UTNE Reader talks about how the growing early exposure of young girls to the toxic chemicals in make-up, hair color, and nail treatments may be dangerous. Even in 2004, this article in the Guardian quoted a study that claimed that
“63% of seven to 10-year-olds wear lipstick, more than two in five eye shadow or eyeliner, and almost one in four mascara. Three quarters of 11- 14-year-old girls use eye shadow and a similar proportion mascara. Lip gloss and lipstick is even more popular, with eight in 10 girls aged 11-14 applying it. Half of girls in that age group wear blusher, with 14% saying they use it every day or more. By the age of 14, almost three in five (58%) girls use perfume.”
This age compression can also be easily seen in the clothing of female celebrities under the age of 18. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, teen-aged female celebrities dressed in trendy clothing, but their choices were very different from those of current teen-aged female celebrities. Compare this photo from teen star Tiffany’s appearance on Top of the Pops
with this single cover from Britney Spears in 2000
Or watch this video of Debbie Gibson for an upbeat dance song
compared to this video by Miley Cyrus.
You can see the gradual movement of sexualization downward from adult women to the teen female celebrity. What’s interesting is that we don’t see this same pattern for male celebrities. The teen pop stars of the 1980s, New Kids on the Block
look much the same as Justin Bieber.
What is especially concerning about this is that while celebrities have become more exposed in the mass media through the growing popularity of the internet, gossip sites, and mobile smart devices, children and adolescents have become inundated with these sexualized images of even young people. This not only promotes the sexualization of females, but it also disrupts the normal gradual emergence of sexuality in young people. Developmentally, it is appropriate for young adolescents to begin thinking about romance and their own sexual desires. Sexuality is a wonderful part of who we are, and it grows and emerges as we age so that it’s naturally displayed in different ways from the time someone is five to fifteen to twenty-five. What’s not natural is for young girls to go overnight from being depicted as innocent children to cleavage flaunting sexual objects. When baby onesies that say “Future Trophy Wife” are being marketed to little ones, we’ve got a problem. In the past 15-20 years we have seen a change in the way that young girls are presented in the media, and this has influenced the products and programming that are marketed to young girls. As adolescents and adults, it’s important for us to be thoughtful about the products that we purchase and the media that we consumer. Using the deconstruction exercises that I shared with you in Deciding if a Product is Right for You and the Fun Activities for Kids posts can help you as you become smart, active media critics. This empowers you as the consumer not to be blindly swayed by savvy marketing, but instead to make active choices that mesh with your own value system.