As happens now and again, parents are speaking out because of the latest issue with racy lingerie being marketed to preteens. Honestly, I haven't looked into the story enough to know what is or isn't going on with Victoria's Secret's marketing campaigns. But I do have thoughts on the matter in general.
During my undergrad I interned for a semester as a research assistant for a professor. My topic of research? The media's influence on the oversexualization of preteen girls. This is a touchy area for me, and one driven as much by emotion as it is by hundreds of hours of careful research on the subject.
Here's the truth: it matters.
We can say it doesn't matter, but it matters. We can let preteen and teenage girls watch MTV and reality shows and popular sitcoms and, yes, even ABC Family, and say the messages these networks send about the way adult (and teenage) women behave, dress, speak, date and sleep around is not affecting the way our daughters behave, dress, speak, date and sleep around, but we would be wrong. It does affect them, and it does matter.
Girls notice. They notice when their dads pick up Playboy magazines and tune in to Baywatch, they see their older brothers' and male friends' heads turn when a scantily clad woman walks by, they watch college-age girls flaunt themselves into drunken stupors on MTV, they overhear their moms' disparaging self-talk about weight, appearance, etc. We're propagating this. We're reinforcing the belief that, crazy or wrong or wild or what-have-you, promiscuous sexual behavior gets attention and a female's self-worth is closely tied to her waistline and the amount of skin she's willing to show.
"There's nothing wrong with adults engaging in adult behaviors."
This is one of the primary arguments I've heard that supports overly sexual media, and I openly admit that the statement is true. Absolutely true. Sexuality is an important and natural and beautiful part of being an adult. I'm not calling sexual relationships bad or evil or shunning the s-e-x word to a dark corner with cobwebs and demanding that my future daughters avoid its very existence. Sexuality is not wrong, but it belongs in an appropriate sphere, and an appropriate amount of spotlight. Turn on prime-time TV, and you'll know it's hogging the entire stage.
We might not think, by watching these shows and tuning in to this media, that we're affecting our daughters because, "Sex will be OK when they're adults someday." Here's the truth: very few little girls can hear SOMEDAY without wanting to try it NOW. Little girls want to try on mommy's makeup and wear big-girl shoes and drive cars and carry a cell phone around. They emulate what they see their role models doing. Little girls want to grow up fast and be like their parents and older siblings. They want to do what grown-ups do and act how grown-ups act. And if they equate growing up with the right to strip down, the right to flash a television camera on a beach somewhere in Florida and the right to base their self esteem on how far they let a hot guy go with their body, that's what they're going to do, younger and younger.
What about the other beautiful aspects of being an adult?
What about college plans and careers and world travel and activism and charity and politics and intellectual discussions? If we're going to send our daughters any message about what it means to grow up, we have plenty of amazing, intelligent options to focus on besides the shape of their bodies or number of sexual partners they can accrue during a spring break trip to Mexico.
If our daughters want to grow up early, why aren't they reaching for college brochures and planning service projects for the local community? Answer: Because that's not what we've told them or shown them being grown up means. Maybe we have, in our own personal lives. But maybe we haven't, in what we're putting on the TV screen. Mommy might not be displaying risky sexual behaviors, but her 7-year-old's favorite celebrity might be. And that celebrity is the one getting all the attention and fame and airtime.
As adults and role models, we need to be the first ones to turn it off, look away, put it down, call it out, label it wrong, and tell and show our daughters that being oversexualized is not the best or only way to be grown up.
Because the truth is, we cannot tell our daughters that they are worth more than the size of their chest or their sexual availability and then turn around and openly indulge the media that tells them otherwise.