Helping girls stay girly, not womanly

Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 7:50 p.m.

Last week, a 6-year-old girl from Madison Heights, Mich., was voted off her cheerleading team because her parents objected to a cheer that goes: “Our backs ache/Our skirts too tight /We shake our booties from left to right!” And no, we’re not talking about other 6-year-olds casting the vote — these were their parents.

Surprised that 6-year-olds are reciting cheers like this? And that their parents are defending it? We’re not. Remember Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” remake this spring by gyrating 7- and 8-year-olds dressed in burlesque-style black and red lace corsets? Just another day in the life of an American girl.

In fact, incidents like these have become so prevalent in real life and pop media that a 2007 American Psychological Association Task Force was commissioned to look at the rampant sexualization of girls and women in the media. These researchers found that virtually every form of media studied showed ample proof of the sexualization of women, resulting in messages so pervasive that they’re having a very real effect on girls’ mental, physical and emotional well being.

Since the Federal Trade Commission lifted restrictions on children’s media in the 1980s, media and marketing companies have targeted younger and younger girls with sexier, thinner, more beauty-conscious and more boy-obsessed imagery and messages. As marketing to children has skyrocketed, so has children’s consumer spending.

Blaming parents delights marketers and media because they’re off the hook for their unconscionable behavior, which includes using developmental psychologists to help them reach kids and create a desire for their products, immersing their brands in everything a child plays with, dresses in, or watches, and then exploiting the very concerns we have about the sexualization of little girls to boost their own mediocre ratings.

In a landscape riddled with messages that narrowly define who girls are supposed to be, how they should look, what they should value, and how their relationships should unfold, it’s no wonder that living, breathing girls barely recognize themselves in their own media. Research tells us that a steady diet of sensationalized media and societal messages about traditional gender roles is linked to three of young women’s most common mental health complaints: depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

At Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, we talk with girls every day and we find, unsurprisingly, that young girls are confused by the media messages they see and hear. Where are the girls with creative ideas, big plans and a range of interests? Where are the girls who play, shout, climb, collect, think, act and dream of something other than designer clothes, looking sexy and hot boyfriends? Their media present them with an awful choice: give up what makes you unique and real or get kicked off the cheering squad.

Parents, too, are under increasing pressure to provide the latest and greatest in fashion and accessories, allow their young daughters to mimic their favorite pop culture icons, and yes, even defend “Bring It On” cheerleading chants. The sexualization of girls — at earlier and earlier ages — is more than one or even a few concerned parents can tackle.

Six-year-old Kennedy Tesch may have started off intending to be the best cheerleader she could be, but she and her family have found themselves unwittingly thrust into the scrum. And in the face of a landscape for girls that has gotten worse, not better, since the landmark APA report was released three years ago, it’s time for others to join them in the battle.

Waterville-based Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, Ms. Foundation for Women, Women’s Media Center, True Child, and the ASAP Initiative at Hunter College are hosting SPARK Summit — Sexualization Protest: Action Resistance Knowledge — on Oct. 22 in New York City for a national audience of parents, educators, researchers, media experts, policymakers, and most importantly, teen girls. Together we will examine the complexity of this issue, generate creative responses, and commit to policy, media and activist solutions. In short, we will ignite a movement and demand something better for girls. Will you join us?

Megan Williams is the executive director of Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, headquartered in Waterville and providing programs and curricula dedicated to the health and well-being of girls and women in Maine and around the world. Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed. D., is a professor of education at Colby College and co-creator of Hardy Girl, Healthy Women.

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