What Happened To Little Girls

By Val Ross on March 15, 2007
The mother, doing her nine-year-old daughter"s laundry, picks a tiny pink and black object out of the clothes basket. Is it a hair band? Good lord, it"s a thong. There"s just enough cloth for the words "eye candy" to be written on it. For whose eyes?

Then, as the mom is moving the kid"s school binder off the living room couch, out falls a classmate"s note, judging by the hand writing. "Hey skanky slut," someone has penciled. "You going to Camp Blowjob this summer?"

The mother confronts her daughter with the note. "Aw, mom. Blowjob is our way of saying Camp Ojibway, where we go every summer! It"s, like, a joke."


 

Sugar & Spicy
The runaway sophistication and early sexualization of our children, especially our daughters, is no joke for parents. "We weren't supposed to wear jeans or pants or shorts to school," says Jacquie Robertson, a London, Ontario mother of two daughters. "Now my gals get out of bed - where they still have stuffed animals - and pull on crotch-hugger jeans that bare their tummies and head off to school with their navel piercing on show."

In our parents' and grandparents' time, little girls - at least those whose parents strove for middle-class respectability - were socialized to be modest, polite and obedient. In the 1930s, Shirley Temple was Fox Studios' most lucrative star; her innocent eyes wore no mascara, her giggle had no trace of campy irony, and she kept her fans happy without ever baring a nipple ring. Into the 1950s and early 1960s, fresh-faced little girls like her were the norm. You saw their dewy faces on bread and cleanser labels, and in characters like Kitten" on TV"s Father Knows Best or Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's freckle-faced Maggie Muggins'. But now look. Whatever happened to little girls?

"I blame the media," says Robertson, who recalls seeing her daughter's favourite pop star, Avril Lavigne, on a 2005 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, which also featured 10 Great Sex Tricks to Try on Your Boyfriend.

The U.S. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that television bombards our kids with nearly double the number of sex scenes as it did less than a decade ago. The study examined more than 1,000 shows and found nearly 4,000 scenes with sexual content, compared with fewer than 2,000 in 1998. It's not just America: Even staid old CBC has run streetwise dramas that deal with teen prostitutes and predatory pederasts such as critically acclaimed Da Vinci's City Hall.

"It"s an even bigger problem in the U.S. than here", comments Karl Moore, father of an eight-year-old daughter and a professor of marketing strategy at McGill University. "We live in the States for about six weeks each year and it bothers us when our daughter asks us for what she sees on TV. Younger girls are being rushed through their childhood in terms of clothing, makeup, and even glitter lip gloss. Quebec girls are less exposed to these pressures than other North American kids because the province forbids television advertising pitched at children on French-language TV."

Turning off the TV won"t stop the outside world. Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables have been replaced by young adult books that deal frankly with single motherhood and homosexuality (Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block).

The Little Black Book for Girlz: A Book on Healthy Sexuality, written by youth through the Youth Arcade program at St. Stephen's Community House in downtown Toronto, makes it clear that today's kids know far more about sex than many adults.



Under Pressure
Even when we trust our kids to use all this candid information wisely, it's scary that there"s so much of it. It has become wallpaper - familiar background noise. Our widespread acceptance of raunch in pop music is particularly disquieting. Teens who listen to music with sexually explicit lyrics are more likely to try sex in its various forms than kids who aren't exposed to such music, according to a 2006 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How can they not be exposed? Our little ones can chant the raunchy words to songs such as Bump by Canada"s own Choclair: "I"m the type to leave a lasting impression/Type to leave your ass guessin"/Type to leave you undressing."

The pressure to sexualize our daughters comes from magazines, TV and the lyrics of pop songs. "The media play a role," says David MacDonald, vice president of consumer research at the Toronto-based Environics, Inc. "But our findings on sexual permissiveness among youth haven"t moved a lot. What we"re confronting is marketers tapping into these attitudes."


A Marketer's Dream
A 2003 Harris Interactive youth poll on U.S. kids' income and spending habits revealed that the eight-to-12 age group spent almost $1,000 CDN per capita. Not only do these tweens tell their parents what to buy, they are the future market for most consumer brands. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen turned their smiles and anorexic bodies into a line of clothes and cosmetics reportedly worth a billion dollars before the twins turned 20.

The Los Angeles-based American Apparel chain, founded by Montrealer Dov Charney, built a multimillion dollar empire with bad-attitude T-shirts (one reads, "Corporate Whore") and nymphet advertising. "Meet Melissa" reads one ad, which depicts a girl in a shower. "She won an unofficial wet T-shirt contest." The North American tween market is worth more than $14 billion CDN. That's a lot of come-hither T-shirts and suggestive mini thongs.


Suddenly Sexy
Thanks to our generous diets - obesity is linked to early puberty - and possibly to steroids in our food (the scientific jury is still out), children are maturing physically at an earlier age. Some grade six girls menstruate; some wear bras - not out of ambition, but necessity.

"We felt like freaks at age 10 when it happened to me and my friend Mitzi, ," says Hannah, a poised 18-year-old in Halifax. She remembers weeping for several days when she realized that she was leaving her childhood before she felt ready.

Nearly half of African American girls show signs of puberty by age eight; the rate is about 15 percent among white kids.

Early onset puberty can be dangerous, according to the Child Development Institute in Toronto, because girls who are emitting pheromones at young ages don't have the street smarts to deal with male attention or peer ridicule; they can become confused and angry and are also at greater risk of early sexual behaviour and teen pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy? Wait a minute: Our great-great-grandmothers married in their teens, and Juliet" was 12 when she met Romeo". The whole idea of the innocent little girl is a construct of the industrialized West, a way of putting off starting a family so that young people can equip themselves for ever more technological jobs. When life spans were shorter, humans had to marry and procreate early or risk not doing so at all. In the Third World, where life is still short, marriages take place at ages when our children are still sleeping with stuffed toys: In Nepal, the International Center for Research on Women reports that seven percent of girls are married before the age of 10.

But that's the point: We do not want such lives for our daughters, lives of early pregnancy and crushing responsibility, women old before they are 30. Nor do we want them to be nubile - and angry about it - while they"re still in grade school. So why are we letting our daughters be hurried along? Why are we complicit in the sending of mixed messages?


Shoppers-In-Training
"Pseudo sophistication is not the same thing as maturity," says Vancouver-based Dr Gabor Mat, author (with Gordon Neufeld) of Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter. "These kids are adult-like, but they"re not adult. This is why parents are still parenting their children into their 20s." His book cites an American study that compares the diaries of adolescent girls 50 years ago and those written today. "Fifty years ago, girls wrote about their yearnings, their aspirations, their contributions to society," says Dr. Mat. "Now the diaries identify their primary concerns as their looks and their peers. When you don"t have strong attachments to adult women role models, you look to your peer group. You try to conform and belong."

It's a marketer"s dream scenario: an army of young girls, shoppers-in-training, more willing than their elders to obey the dictates of magazines and ads, armed with more discretionary spending money than their grandmothers ever dreamed of, deploying in vast phalanxes to scour the malls and boutiques for the latest uniforms and badges of a womanhood they don"t really understand.

Whatever happened to little girls? PC


By Val Ross| March 15, 2007

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