Marketing what? To whom?

By Randy Hicks
Houston Chronicle, 3/21/07

I was distressed as I watched my innocent seven-year-old daughter and her friend dance. “Where on earth,” I asked myself, “did they learn to dance like that?”

“Like that” is, well, not at all like what you’d expect from a child whose innocence ought to still be intact. Think pole dancing, not cotillion. That’s overstating it some, but not by much.

It turns out that the parents of our daughter’s friend, against our explicit instructions, chose to allow the girls to watch a movie that exceeded our movie-rating restrictions. They decided that Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle would be an appropriate movie for a couple of first graders.

I suspect that most parents have faced similar situations in which people you would deem to be allies in your quest to raise healthy, well-adjusted children – other parents – have let you down. But we parents need to be very clear about who won’t be helping us out – marketers and the entertainment industry. And, with the introduction of Bratz dolls a few years ago, you better pay attention to the toy industry too.

Call me old-fashioned, but please count me among those who think that sexualizing products for children is a really, really bad idea. Thongs for 7 to 14 year old girls with slogans like “wink wink” and “eye candy” printed on the front (a product introduced by a major retailer a few years ago), is a bad idea. Pedophiles may like it, I don’t.

Neither do I like the idea of Bratz dolls. Why on earth would I want my daughters, still in single digits age-wise, to be playing with dolls that make immodesty all the rage.

The first one that appeared in my house – courtesy of another friend of my daughter – wore a thong under the mini-est of mini skirts.

I know that’s two references to thong underwear in the first six paragraphs of this column, but you should know that I have nothing against thong underwear. But I do have something against the onslaught of images and messages that threaten to reduce my girls to mere sexual objects, in both their eyes and in the eyes of their present and future male peers.

Apparently, the American Psychological Association (APA) shares my concern.

Last month the APA released a report suggesting that sexualized images in the media are psychologically damaging young girls and corrupting childhood. The panel of psychologists behind the report says that most forms of media are promoting inappropriate images that are harmful to girls’ self image and healthy development.

The report specifically sites Bratz dolls which come dressed in miniskirts, fishnet stockings and, well, you know what. (One writer in Britain, where Bratz are outselling Barbie two to one, recounted her thoughts when her four-year-old daughter received a Bratz doll for her birthday: “For a moment, I stared at it and wondered if there was a new doll on the block called ‘Hooker Barbie.’”)

The APA report says that marketers are taking advantage of children’s innate desire for affection and peer acceptance, which is leading to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. “The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development,” says Eileen Zurbriggen, the APA’s chairman.

“We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.”

This says nothing about boys. What are the “takeaways” for them? We can’t discount the attitudes about women that are forming in the minds of boys and men. Do we want the boys who will date our daughters to have an objectified view of women? Men have to fight this impulse anyway, so we don’t need to feed it.

The British writer I mentioned before rightly points out that the “bombardment of sexual images is not designed principally to sell our children on sex, of course. What it’s really about is selling us on shopping. Learn early about appearance, and it turns you into a good little consumer.”

But over exposure to sexualized images and messages does not only have an impact on attitudes about oneself and others; it has an impact on behavior. A report issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation in late 2005 revealed that repeated exposure to sexual topics on television is correlated to early sexual activity among youth.

In other words, all this stuff matters.

This brings us to a frequent topic in this column: parenting.

Parents, we can yell, scream, protest and boycott. But the single most important thing we can do as parents (noun) is parent (verb). My wife and I can’t afford to wait for advertisers to “get it.” We have to pay careful attention to the messages our children are receiving and help them do two things – avoid them when possible, and think through them when not. The latter is as important as the former.

Our kids are going to be exposed to unhealthy and potentially demeaning messages about human sexuality and the opposite sex. We need to help them think critically about those messages and help them develop healthy attitudes about relationships, sex and genuine human intimacy. Their health and future relationships – marriages! – may very well depend upon such attitudes.

Now, I know that somewhere out there someone is saying, “Dude, lighten up. It’s all in fun.”

Look, it’s fun for the folks getting rich off children’s need to be accepted, esteemed and loved. But it’s not fun for parents who are trying their best to instill self-confidence based on what really matters – character and healthy relationships.

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