Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Adolescents and Abercrombie: Agents or Objects of Desire?

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:

  1. As a child’s body begins to develop physically, talk openly with them about those changes. Sometimes silence is interpreted as shame, and the child begins to internalize the sense that what is happening to them is somehow scary and/or wrong. For girls, a great beginning resource is the American Girl Body Book for Girls. This is a book for early changes; such as you might see at ages 8-10, depending on your child’s individual development.
  2. As early as possible, talk about sexual behavior in the context of committed, loving relationships. Make sure that you talk about pleasure for both people involved. This sounds hard, but when kids are little, you can use the example of a hug. It feels good for both people, helps you express your love for each other, and draws you together. For young children or resistant children, introduce the concept of physical connection and relationship early, and then you can lead into more detailed conversations about sexual behaviors.
  3. Talk about mutuality. For example, how does it feel when someone hugs you close who you don’t like or know? Not good, right? That’s an important way to help a child start to identify their agency in physical relationships.
  4. As your child grows up, you advance this conversation a piece at a time. Talk about holding hands, kissing, sexual behaviors ranging from touching to oral sex to intercourse. YOU MUST HAVE THESE CONVERSATIONS!! Believe me, your child will be hearing about it from someone, you want it to be you.
  5. Some kids just don’t want to talk about sexuality and growing up, while others jump right in and ask all kinds of questions. Try to be responsive to your child’s needs, but make sure that you don’t allow their resistance to keep you from addressing issues that really need to be addressed. You may just have to be more creative with how you introduce the topic. Ask friends, relatives, and others who have older children for ideas if you feel stuck. Or, get a book to help you move the conversation forward. There are a lot of great, well-researched books out there about how to talk with your kids about sex.

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.

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