When Paris Hilton was sentenced to jail last week for violating her probation, the hard-partying heiress won yet another 15 minutes of fame guaranteed to captivate her young admirers. Like party pals Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Nicole Richie, Paris has parlayed poor judgment and vulgar exhibitionism into idol status among America’s teen and pre-teen set.
Girls as young as five moan Britney’s racy lyrics, while their sisters in elementary and middle school copy Nicole’s compulsive dieting, Lindsay’s brazen flashing, and Paris’ sultry stare. Young women are now groomed from girlhood to arouse sexual attention by posting suggestive messages on their personal web pages and wearing the same risqué fashions as their Bratz dolls. Newsweek recently chronicled the rise of these “prosti-tots” – girls as young as seven “who dress like tarts” and dream of breast implants as high-school graduation gift.
Aspiring young exhibitionists can find role models everywhere these days, from the coeds who disrobe for “Girls Gone Wild” camera crews and publish pornographic pictures of themselves in student-run magazines, to mothers who take pole-dancing classes and wear the same see-through blouses and skin-tight jeans as their teenage daughters.
Today’s pop culture tells women that sexual power is the kind that counts most and they can achieve it by showing skin. That message has trickled down to girls, forcing them to trade carefree childhood pleasures for sexual competition.
You can see them in the mall, tugging nervously at their skimpy shorts and halter tops, straining to see how men react to their little bellies flouncing out of low-slung jeans. They look more exploited than empowered as they fuss and cringe, adjust and squirm. How odd that in an age when girls have more athletic and academic opportunities than ever, girlhood has become a high-pressure dress-rehearsal for adult mating games.
The American Psychological Association recently issued an alarming report on this trend, concluding that girls who view themselves as sex objects are more prone to academic failure, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and poor self-image.
They may also be more likely to engage in sexual activity, as girls who look older tend to attract more sexual attention. That sexual activity carries risks beyond the physical for girls: A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed a strong correlation between sexual activity and depression in teenage girls – a correlation far stronger than the one seen in boys, with girls’ depression rates rising as the number of sexual partners rose. The study suggests that sexual experimentation is not a symptom but a cause of depression in teenage girls.
Many parents feel powerless to resist the objectification of their daughters. But others are fighting back. A new modesty movement is sprouting in cities from Denver to Atlanta, with Pure Fashion shows drawing crowds of modesty-conscious mothers and daughters, new retailers like Shade Clothing reporting multi-million dollar sales figures for clothes that keep private parts private, and feisty online communities like ModestyZone.net encouraging rebels against raunchy culture.
The girls and women behind this movement say they are not looking to revive gunny-sack dresses or relive the 1950s. They simply want to be seen as more than the sum of their body parts.
Their modesty message is controversial in the era of Paris and Britney. Yet it is also common sense, as even Paris seems to know. How else to explain her unprecedented choice of a collar and covered neckline for her recent court appearance? It seems that even America’s quintessential girl gone wild realizes that when she wants to be taken seriously, she must stop the striptease and show some self-respect.