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Growing up too fast

Parents have options for thwarting tweens' sexualization

By Jennifer Barrett
The Salt Lake Tribune
August 6, 2007

A lot of mothers were less than thrilled last week about attending a screening of "Bratz: The Movie."

    The belly-baring dolls have made parents cringe since they first set high-heeled, fishnet-stockinged foot on toy-store shelves in 2001. But by the time the lights came up, many moms found they didn't hate the Bratz as much as they expected. The live-action film may not be earning four stars from any critics, but it does turn the Bratz into high-achieving students, talented athletes and confident, polite girls. They may live to shop, but they aren't the little streetwalkers some critics say they resemble.

    The movie showed "that it's OK to be different. . . . You can be smart and still be cute," said Stephanie Goodfellow, a Salt Lake City resident who took her 7-year-old daughter, Hannah, to the screening.

    The moviemakers have said they heard the complaints of parents and consumer groups and tried to turn the pop tarts into wholesome role models for tweens.
    The stakes are high for girls' health and for corporate profits.

    Experts say girls are bombarded with sexualized images that can lead to emotional problems, low self-image, earlier sexual activity and later problems with healthy relationships.

    More parents are paying attention and teaching their daughters to be critical thinkers, and many Utahns are at the center of an effort to offer an alternative. But the media machine is following close behind with slickly repackaged products that aim to skirt adult concerns and still sell goods, according to industry critics.

    "What Bratz is doing in the movie is create a persona of: 'Why could parents be upset with us? We're so wholesome.' But then walk into the store and look at the toys. Go to the Web site and see. All you can do is buy stuff to make you look pretty," said Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and author of the forthcoming book So Sexy So Soon.

    Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association issued a report saying, "Virtually every media form studied provides ample evidence of the sexualization of women," leading to damaging consequences for kids.

    The report pointed to the Bratz dolls as part of the problem, along with thong underwear sized for 7-year-olds; magazine articles on how to get a boy to like you; TV shows featuring adult women dressed in lingerie but imitating children; and much more. Such images create an environment in which being female is the same as being a sexual object, the researchers said.

    Girls pay a heavy toll, the report said. Narrow notions of beauty are linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Seeing themselves as sex objects may lead girls to seek plastic surgery, try smoking and give in to pressure from boys when it comes to sex and forgoing condoms.

    And Levin says our advertising-driven culture can even stunt a girl's creativity and sense of self, with television tie-ins and Web sites telling kids how to play with their products.

    "Have you seen kids using Bratz dolls? The only thing they do is have fashion shows and dress them up. That's not play, that's being a robot," she said.
    Many parents and businesses are fighting back.

    Business has been great for Murray clothier Modest by Design, which is preparing to sign a lease to open a second store. Internet sales have boomed and now account for more revenue than do local purchases.

    "People have found us and spread the word," said Eddie Gist, who founded and co-owns the store with his wife, Heather. He said they've received the stamp of approval from a Catholic bishop in Boston, who has passed on the word to young women in his diocese. They've gotten e-mails from Orthodox Jews seeking more shirts and dresses that stretch from the collarbone to the elbow. And they ship overseas every month.

    "There's no place people can shop and find modest clothing," he said.
    A national grass-roots movement helped kill plans for a series of dolls based on the vampy Pussycat Dolls. Teenagers have organized "girlcots" of stores selling provocative clothing. A series of books is out praising modesty and chastity, including Girls Gone Mild, which declares there is a youth-led rebellion against trashy clothes, badly behaved pop stars and casual sex.

    Some parents and experts believe that many girls today are becoming just as sophisticated as the messages that flash constantly before their eyes.

    Caitlin Cahill, a professor in the department of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, is reluctant to boil any behavior down to something as simple as "the media."

    "I'm so wary of any kind of cause and effect. Young people's lives . . . are much more complex. There are multiple factors that inform the way we make decisions about sex partners, love, romance," she said, pointing to race, gender, geography and economics. Plus, she adds, any discussion of sexualized girls in Utah needs to look at sex education in the schools.

    "Research has shown that sex education is really effective, and that this abstinence-only education model isn't. If we're really concerned about sexuality, we should be addressing it head-on and talking with young women about sexuality issues - with them, rather than at them," she said.

    Some mothers believe we're not giving girls enough credit.

    Take Megan and Nicole Curtis. The South Jordan sisters love the Bratz dolls because they're "really glittery." But both say they don't want to look like one.

    "It's just not right," 8-year-old Nicole said. Added her sister, 10-year-old Megan: "It's not modest."

    "Girls are a lot more sure of themselves," said Goodfellow, the Salt Lake City mother who attended "Bratz" with her daughter, Heather. They are more likely to stand up for themselves, say no and make good choices. "From where we were when we were in high school, it's a lot better."

    Other mothers believe the "experts" are making too much out of the whole debate.
    "What's the big deal? It's just a cute doll. And every little girl should have some lip gloss and shoes," said South Jordan mom Karen Peterson.

Tips for parents

    Parents are a powerful influence in their children's lives and can do much to counteract the messages children see. Here are some tips from the American Psychological Association.
    * TUNE IN AND TALK: Watch TV and movies with your daughters and sons. Read their magazines. Surf their Web sites. Ask questions. "Why is there so much pressure on girls to look a certain way?" "What do you like most about the girls you want to spend time with?" "Do these qualities matter more than how they look?" Really listen to what your kids tell you.
    * QUESTION CHOICES: Girls who are overly concerned about their appearance often have difficulty focusing on other things. Clothes can be part of the distraction. If your daughter wants to wear something you consider too sexy, ask what she likes and doesn't like about the outfit. Explain how clothes that require lots of checking and adjusting might keep her from focusing on school work, friends and other activities.
    * SPEAK UP: If you don't like a TV show, CD, video, pair of jeans or doll, say why. A conversation will be more effective than simply saying, "No, you can't buy it or watch it."
    * UNDERSTAND: Young people often feel pressure to watch popular TV shows, listen to music their friends like and conform to certain styles of dress. Help your daughter make wise choices among the trendy alternatives. Remind her often that who she is and what she can accomplish are far more important than how she looks.
    * ENCOURAGE: Athletics and other extracurricular activities emphasize talents, skills and abilities over physical appearance. Encourage your daughter to follow her interests.
    * EDUCATE: You may feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality with your kids, but it's important. Talk about when you think sex is OK as part of a healthy, intimate, mature relationship. Ask why girls often try so hard to look and act sexy. Effective sex-education programs discuss media, peer and cultural influences on sexual behaviors and decisions, how to make safe choices, and what makes healthy relationships.
    * BE REAL: Help your kids focus on what's really important: what they think, feel and value. Help them build strengths that will allow them to achieve their goals and develop into healthy adults. Remind your children that everyone's unique and that it's wrong to judge people by their appearance.
    * MODEL: Marketing and the media also influence adults. When you think about what you buy and watch, you teach your sons and daughters to do so, too.


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