Sexualizing Girls

Posted: Feb 23, 2007 12:01 AM

The American Psychological Association has discovered that too early sexualization of children, particularly girls, is damaging. How about that? Because I have well-developed views on this subject, I almost didn't read the long article about it in the Health section of The Washington Post this week. But I'm glad I did because just when you think you're up to date on cultural decline, you are surprised.

Here is reporter Stacy Weiner on the state of preteen fashion: "Ten-year-old girls can slide their low cut jeans over 'eye-candy' panties. French maid costumes, garter belt included, are available in preteen sizes. . . . And it's not unusual for girls under 12 to sing, 'Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?'" As Nora Ephron memorably put it in another context, "No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up."

The Post article and the APA report focus on the increasing rates of eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem among younger and younger girls. Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for example, is now seeing patients as young as 6 with eating disorders. Girls are worrying about their weight and expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies at younger ages.

But both the Post article and the APA conflate two very separate issues and therefore confuse matters. "When do little girls start wanting to look good for others?" asks the Post, and quotes a sex educator as guessing that whereas it once began at 6 or 7, it now gets started as early as 4. Similarly, the APA report warns that "Exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness may make it difficult for some men to find an 'acceptable' partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner."

Whoa. The issue is not the female desire to be attractive. There's a world of difference between simply wanting to look good -- little girls like dresses and ribbons and even nail polish at extremely young ages -- and dressing like a little tart. Sadly, little tart clothes are out there in abundance, whereas parents of girls tell me it's a struggle to find simple, age-appropriate attire for the under-16 set. When girls barely out of diapers are encouraged to wear makeup, skin-tight mini skirts and push-up bras, we've left the realm of wanting to look pretty and gone into something sick and tawdry. Whatever we may think of immodesty in grown women, there is little doubt that it is disgusting, demeaning and depraved in little girls.

Now it's interesting that this subject, the sexualization of children, is condemned by both the Left and Right. But not surprisingly, we blame different agents. Liberal parents who detest the tart culture tend to blame business. The Post quotes a writer who blames the deregulation of children's television in the mid-1980s. Additionally, liberals point to clothes manufacturers, music purveyors and teen magazine publishers.

The APA seems to think the answer is more feminism: "Girls and girls' groups can also work toward change. Alternative media such as 'zines' . . . 'blogs' . . . and feminist magazines, books and Web sites encourage girls to become activists who speak out and develop their own alternatives. Girl empowerment groups also support girls in a variety of ways and provide important counterexamples to sexualization."

Well, good luck with that, but perhaps a more traditional approach would work better. Fathers and mothers, protect your girls' innocence. Take the TV out of their rooms. Monitor what they watch. Don't purchase the racy clothes or music or movies. And try a dose of what Bill Bennett and Joe Lieberman attempted to do more than a decade ago -- shame the purveyors of smut. Here we come to the conservative perspective. Popular culture, in all its crudeness, is the output of liberals. It is liberalism that for decades has rejected any protest as "censorship" or "McCarthyism."

Perhaps we can now arrange a truce in the name of our daughters. Liberals and conservatives can unite to clean up TV, the music industry and popular culture generally. Liberals can do so believing they are thrashing big business, and conservatives can take satisfaction in confirming family values. Truce, anyone?