Are sexual images on television making kids grow up too fast? By Laura BayardIllustrations by Susan Randstrom
When 9-year-old Starr dresses up, she wears hipster jeans, a low-cut shirt and, for that extremely tight-fitting look, her 6-year-old sister's clothes.
It's the source of numerous fights with her mother, Robyn Westfallen of Streamwood. "I basically tell her it's inappropriate and she needs to dress like she's 9," says Westfallen. "It seems to be that [the media] are glorifying sex and the thinness. My daughter loves Britney Spears, and I see her dancing and replicating the moves. And she's 9."
Author Jean Kilbourne says, "There's an unbelievable amount of sex that's used to target teens. It's an easy, lazy way to sell products." She discusses the advertising industry's sexploitation of children in her book, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.
More than ever, kids are exposed to bare midriffs, cleavage and sexual innuendo. Parents such as Westfallen struggle to counteract a barrage of sexual imagery in television shows, music videos, computer games, movies and advertising. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, 64 percent of all television shows and 83 percent of television shows, popular with teens include some kind of sexual content.
But it starts earlier. Young children, especially girls, see so many sexual images in the media. Westfallen says even her 6-year-old daughter, Daphne, pushes the limit with hairstyles, makeup and clothes. "My younger daughter is a fashion diva," she says, adding that Daphne copies her older sister's style.
"Childhood has disappeared," says parenting expert Erika Karres, author of Mean Chicks, Cliques and Dirty Tricks. "Kids are 8 and then suddenly are adults, or at least treated like adults. Everything seems to be geared to take away what we used to call a quiet time for growing."
There's big money to be made in marketing to the 6-to-12-year-old set. Those 'tweens and teens are big spenders. During the past decade, there has been an explosion of entertainment and advertising geared toward those profit-generating consumers. Big-name retailers such as Abercrombie and Fitch, the Limited Too, Claire's, the Gap, the Olsen twins and even Radio Disney, to name a few, are trying to corner the 'tweens market. And the kids are buying. Some 1999 statistics show that preteens spend $260 billion themselves, their parents spend another $176 billon on them and the 'tweens influence still another $76 billion in family spending.
Not all of that money is spent on sexually suggestive clothes, of course. But some is, no matter how inappropriate it seems to adults. It's cute, fun and everyone else is doing it. Is that bad? Experts and parents are not sure. But they worry sexual images that objectify women are leading to earlier sexual activity, one of the most shocking examples being oral sex parties as young as middle school.
Is it sexual? But it's not always clear to the girls that there is any effect. "Girls who are 8 and 9 do not see their clothing as sexual. Within their own world, they see it as cool," says Dan Cook, assistant professor of advertising and communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Two years ago, Abercrombie started selling thong underwear to girls ages 10 and up. It actually sold out in stores, says Hampton Carney, a spokesperson for the company.
"They were really cute," he says. "It's a fashion trend. We're making great fashions and that's what our customers want."
Sexy images are available to children on the Internet, television, billboards, movies and television.
"It's all over," Cook says. "It really shouldn't be a surprise that 7- and 8-year-olds are picking up on it in one way or another."
"We live in a toxic cultural environment. It's an environment that teaches our kids very bad things," says Kilbourne, who hopes for an eventual ban on children's advertising. "It's really like saying if the air is poisoned, don't let your kids breathe."
"I don't think they [kids] understand the implications of what they're doing or what they're wearing," says George Sweet, the Skokie father of Jessie, 15. "They don't see it on TV and say ‘I want to do that.' They see it in a million places and subconsciously it enters their mind that this is appropriate behavior, that this is commonplace."
Kilbourne says over-sexualized
content in the media "is a public health problem" because it is insidious. And many agree the number of messages is becoming dangerous.
"I think it definitely adds to them engaging in sexual behavior much younger," says Susan Foley, a school psychologist at Lincoln Junior High School in Skokie and Thomas Edison Elementary School in Morton Grove. "Kids are looking a lot older and acting a lot older."
Kissing on the playground Many women and girls strive for the ideal of being both equal to men and sexy at the same time. However, parents and teens both agree the images they see on television are degrading to women. "It's not just about sexualized images to kids, but to ourselves," Cook says. "[Sexuality] is becoming as much the measure of self as any other aspect of identity."
Kilbourne, who has researched the image of women in advertising, says she found advertisers are not purposely portraying women negatively. "I think it's reflecting something unconscious, reflecting the ideal for women," she says. "Girls are supposed to be objects of desire, objects of someone else's desire."
"The emphasis has gone more on looks and less on terms of equality," Cook says.
At those vulnerable 'tween and teen stages in life, looks are especially important when it comes to fitting in with friends. "Most of us think about what other people think," says 15-year-old Brittani Mosinski of Chicago. "If you're wearing skimpier clothing, you get noticed."
Parent George Sweet says he thinks peer pressure is the No. 1 reason kids copy the suggestive clothing they see on television. "I think it is 100 percent that they want to dress like their friends, or they want to dress like the movie stars they want to emulate."
Often the approval from friends is all kids need. Robyn Westfallen says her daughter, Starr, likes to kiss boys on the playground. "I tell her that's not appropriate, but her friends all think it's cool that she's doing it."
Many parents and experts point their fingers at music videos as the biggest perpetrators of negative messages to kids about sex and women. "Kids are more likely to imitate people with perceived status," says Karen Gouze, the director of training in psychology at Children's Memorial Hospital. This could mean trying to copy those favorite pop stars with physical attractiveness, power and money.
"The kids are definitely watching these [videos] and identifying more with these rock stars," Foley says.
But most importantly, young children in every generation want to look and act older. Kids see that older kids or adults have more influence and are more independent, so being older is the goal, no matter the cost.
"You always want to be older and seem older, but you're making yourself look stupid because you are dressed so badly," says 13-year-old Stephanie Sanders of Chicago.
Those pictures of scantily dressed stars are doing more than influencing girls' clothing choice. More than ever, girls are concerned with body image. "Now you have to be skinny to be sexy," Brittani says of the images sent to young girls.
"[The media] definitely gives the message to girls that the physical piece is the most important piece," says Foley, who works with students in third through eighth grade. "Eating disorders, all those types of things seem to be tied to these sexual images. We're definitely seeing kids who are concerned and worrying about dieting at a much younger age."
Westfallen says she also worries about self-esteem issues for girls who focus too much on copying favorite stars.
"My 9-year-old weighs under 60 pounds and she thinks she's fat," she says. "To hear that at 9 is very unnerving. I explain to her that no, you are not fat. You don't need to worry about this at your age."
Pimpin' it Boys, too, are far from immune to the effects of sexual imagery. One recent trend for boys is to dress like a pimp. The style is often attributed to the influence of rappers such as Kid Rock and Jay-Z who portray the pimp lifestyle as a glamorous one of power, money, prestige and, of course, women. It can all be pretty attractive to an adolescent boy. Even Madonna went pimpin' in one of her music videos. Web sites such as www.pimpgear.com sell not only clothes, but a lifestyle. A movie about Lil' Pimp, a 9-year-old animated character who gained popularity on the Internet, is due out this year.
"The boys are being taught to sell girls' sex," says Judith Rasband, director of the Conselle Institute of Image Management in Provo, Utah. "They are being taught that a girl is an object." Rasband, who travels nationally to present seminars on appearance, style and etiquette, says low-cut clothing and exposed skin send the wrong message to young boys. "Sex is the only communication there and guys know it."
Experts say they are seeing huge increases in instances of date rape and sexual harassment, and boys as young as elementary school are already making negative sexual comments. "I have no doubt they're learning something about how to behave by watching this stuff," Gouze says.
One 14-year-old girl says in middle school, boys teased her for wearing a pair of combat boots. "The guys called me 'ho, whore, Courtney Love,' " she says. Some teen girls say many of their peers dress provocatively only to get attention from boys. "[Boys say] if you don't look like this model, then I don't think I can date you because you're not sexy," Brittani says.
While boys are encouraged to be powerful and sexually dominating, girls should remain virginal, despite encouragement to wear skimpy clothes. When a group of teenage girls declared Jennifer Lopez to be a poor role model because she "skips from guy to guy," 13-year-old Jasmine Gonzalez applauded Lopez for "being her own person."
"Guys don't stay with one girl," she says. "If girls do that, they are called 'ho's and sluts. Girls should have the same rights. They shouldn't be called sluts."
Toxic culture So what are parents to do? How can they compete with popular TV shows, music videos and that coveted attention from boys? While most experts agree there is no simple remedy, many suggest teaching kids to understand that what is on the television screen is not reality. Karen Gouze suggests watching with them and discussing the images you see.
"Know what it is your kids are watching," she says. "There needs to be a dialogue about it and that's why co-viewing is so valuable."
But Gouze says while she believes parents must set limits, they should also listen to their kids' needs. Be open to what kids want and pick battles. For example, tight shorts may be allowable, but not tight shorts with negative messages. "Allow them to be part of kid culture," she says. "Your job as a parent is to make it clear where you draw the line. If [you] just automatically say ‘no' to everything, then kids will have something to push against."
Westfallen says that while she explains to her daughters that actors on television are much older, she also tries to minimize their exposure to inappropriate content. "We kind of avoid the malls," she says. "There are too many things at the mall that I don't want her to see."
But sometimes, keeping kids from looking is not so easy. Sadly, many members of the younger generation believe chances for change are slim. "Nothing can be done," says 15-year-old Kara Traylor. "Everyone's so used to it. No one will stand up. They think no one will listen."
Laura Bayard is a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a former Chicago Parent intern who is currently studying in Paris.