As many of you, I’ve been following the stories recently of the 10-year-old Vogue model and now the “loungerie” marketed to children as young as 4 years old. For the past few days I’ve been mulling this whole thing over, wanting to share my thoughts without my anger obscuring the message. Make no mistake, I’m sick and tired of this nonsense. I’m tired of little girls and women being treated like objects. I’m tired of companies using the “baiting outrage” play to throw out some ridiculously callous product or marketing campaign in order to get a lot of media attention. I’m tired of adults allowing children to be the casualties of big companies and their marketing gurus. I’ve had it with this nonsense, and it’s time for those of us who are tired of it to come together and make our voices heard loud and clear. I used the image above in direct defiance of the sexualized, objectified images that we often see of young girls. Their futures, their talents and skills, their bodies, belong to them and not to others. They are the agents of their own lives.
For those who think that media and marketing consistently portraying girls and women as objects doesn’t really matter, you better think again. Using Coopersmith’s (1967) seminal work in self-esteem as a guideline, there are three main areas that we need to think about in terms of how children develop their self-concept, how they learn to understand themselves, to evaluate themselves even. These are: Significance, Competence, and Power. Significance refers to how much a person believes that they are loved and approved by others. Competence is about how well someone does things that they consider to be important. Power is all about how well and to what extent a person can control themselves and their environment and influence others.
So how might the messages that children and adolescents receive from the media effect their self-concept? How might it change the way they see themselves and judge their value and worth? If I think that what makes me valuable and worthy is my physical attractiveness, then that is going to be my focus. I am either going to feel that I am not attractive enough, or lose my self-confidence, just as research has shown (Hargreaves, 2002). And, from the perspective of boys, this kind of pressure can limit the way that boys learn to relate to females in general (Daniels, 2010).When girls adopt the media message that the thing that makes them valuable is their ability to attract others, then that becomes their focus. They begin to objectify themselves, seeing themselves in terms of objects of desire for others, rather than individuals who have strengths within themselves.
The message that is sent through media’s sexualization of females is that any power women and girls have is focused on their sexuality. A girl picks up the message that the only way for her to be powerful is to be physically attractive to others. In early and pre adolescent girls, we see a lot of confusion as they struggle with how to deal with this message. Girls who have previously been proud of their intelligence, their math skills, their sense of humor or soccer ability, suddenly begin to see those things as unimportant. There is a trend discussed in professional circles that shows a decrease in core self-esteem in girls as they enter adolescence. Most professionals believe that this trend is linked to the fact that at this point in their lives girls are beginning to get the message that the thing that is most important about them, that gives them the most value and power, is their physical attractiveness. And now, we see this message filtering down to even younger children, even preschool girls are beginning to internalize the thin ideal.
These developments are not healthy for children or for our culture in general. The highly sexualized messages that children are being exposed to lead to young adults with a very narrow view of power and success, and to the constant seeking of shallow, physically centered relationships.
The caring adults in a child’s life must respond to these sexualized messages by presenting children with beliefs about significance, competence, and power that are in direct contrast to the messages they are receiving from this type of media. They should be encouraged to find their value in their kindness, their strength of mind and purpose, their intelligence, and their sensitivity. Girls should be encouraged to use their bodies as instruments of their own desire. To understand themselves not as OBJECTS to be viewed and appreciated but as AGENTS in their own lives, ready and able to make their lives their own, active in choosing who they want to be and what they want to do rather than what others want of them.
As we provide them with these alternate views of value, we also help them to view significance, competence, and power in a different way. To be competent in standing up for what you believe in, powerful for supporting your friends, significant for achieving what you can in different areas, these all lead to positive outcomes.
This week as I read the article and saw the accompanying photos (which I will not post) for the lingerie for tiny tots, I was also engaged with my own daughters. I watched my 7-year-old at the pool assertively cannonballing into the swimming pool, trying to make the biggest splash she could. I saw my 12 -year-old mastering a rip stick skateboard, sure of herself and her ability to make her body do what she wanted it to. My 10-year-old danced to hear heart’s content, sweaty and laughing, just because she wanted to. What struck me was the contrast between these images. We have the girl presented as object, passively presented on view for others to see and admire. Then we have the girl in action, the agent of her own life, using her body how she wants to in order to achieve her own goals. This is what I want for all girls and women, to view themselves as agents, to refuse to step consistently into the passive role of object. It’s time for media and marketers to get on board with more positive messages or face the financial consequences. Enough is enough. Who’s with me?