As a clinician, I can’t help but ponder how the most vulnerable members of our society are at risk when the possibility of our children being free from sexual abuse norms appears untenable. We live in a society that promotes and normalizes sexuality in images, messages, and behaviors. It appears it’s everywhere I look- T.V, magazines, malls, social media, everything appears to have a sexualized component. Even Disney shows geared towards elementary age children, once perceived as wholesome, are now incorporating sexualized imagery and story-lines including sexual activity, romantic relationships and cheating. Playtime, too, is rife with sexualized images, including dolls with exaggerated feminine and sexual features such as heavy makeup, revealing and skimpy clothing.
In an effort to preserve the impact of children’s influence from normalized sexual imagery, we need to recognize that early exposure to sexualized content has a profound impact on children’s values, behaviors, and understanding of sexual abuse. Because parents cannot rely on advertising or media standards for appropriate material, parents and guardians need to be more proactive in knowing what their children are playing with, watching, and looking at. Parents, educators, and clinicians can use examples as included in this blog post as teachable moments to educate children on the inappropriateness of the sexual content, as well as explaining healthy and age-appropriate content and behaviors.
‘Bratz’ dolls are an example of sexually explicit imagery in toys designed for children as young as 24 months. These dolls have been criticized as sexually explicit, portraying females with large breasts and butts, heavy makeup, heels, and revealing clothing. Young children often see themselves in these dolls- thus building a foundation of children viewing sexiness as part of or all of their identity. Will girls inherently learn to view themselves as sex objects? Once this image is internalized and girls realize they do not and can nott look like these unrealistic women, they begin to suffer adverse consequences. Anxiety, low self-esteem, insecurities, and depression are just a few of the psychological problems children can develop when they feel they are not meeting the normalized standards of beauty portrayed in the things they interact with. Do sexually explicit girls portrayed in dolls and playthings change the way society views children at large? Will our society view children as willing participants in sexual activity when they model the sexually explicit behaviors, attire, and attitude of the dolls they are imitating?
“They represent all that little girls want to be,” say the makers of the Bratz dolls.
Many people believe these toys can have a negative effect on children’s self-perception, including the Scottish government. Already, there is some push back against this sexualized imagery, with artists repurposing these dolls to resemble famous women or simply regular children. Wendy Tsao’s WordPress shows the before and after images of her art project transforming Bratz dolls into famous women who are appropriate role models for young girls. Each new doll includes a description of who it represents and a short summary of their work. Similarly, Tasmanian artist Sonia Singh gives dolls a down to earth style and sells them from her blog Tree Change Dolls.
But children’s perception of these sexual images only represents part of the problem. What really happens when adults look at images like this? What happens when these sexualized children are not dolls, but real little girls? For example, what affect do child beauty pageants have on pedophiles? Do we view these children as older and more mature than they are? Do images like this make children more likely to say they are older than what they really are? Does media like this make it easier for those to believe children want to engage in adult sexual relationships?
Some adults seem, to me, to actively participate in this sexualization of children. Alternatively, beauty pageant mother of Savanna Jackson, believes she is not exploiting nor over sexualizing her daughter and stated her daughter ‘loves’ her darker skin tone from the spray tans she receives monthly and reported she is building up Savanna’s self-esteem and giving her the best possible opportunity in life. Savanna was 3 at the time.
Savannah Jackson, competing in a pageant at age 3
Laura Jackson, mother of beauty pageant competitor Savannah Jackson (pictured above) explains the process involved in preparing her daughter for competitions.
As an example, the movie ‘Bad Grandpa’ is a heavily satirized movie that makes light of an entire industry that capitalizes on the sexualization of children. This is an extreme example; however, it serves to ridicule parents like Savanna Jackson’s, who allow their children to be displayed in scant clothing, heavy makeup, and inappropriate gesturing. It is worth noting that, not only are adults viewing these images, but also constructing them, as parents prepare, primp and preen their children for exposure.
For a more in-depth analysis on the movie ‘Bad Grandpa’ see my blog here.
What is behind these images, and what are the implications on the adults and children who create and consume them? In author David Boles article ‘Pedophilia and Child Beauty Pageant Perversion’ he derides child beauty pageants, highlighting the over-sexualization of children and the impact on pedophiles as well as the parents participation:
‘There is a parental perversion in dismissing the child in her childhood to bend time and strangle circumstance in order to teach a child how to moisten lips, flirt with judges and convey a sexuality that, beyond the beauty pageant stage, would cause great alarm in those vested in providing for the public welfare of children.’
As a clinician who works with vulnerable children, I recognize the need for adults in a young person’s life to work hard to model appropriate sexual behavior and celebrate good examples in the media. I believe anyone with a role in a child’s life has a responsibility to demonstrate self respect and self worth and to encourage children and teenagers to seek out strong adults who exemplify who they want to become instead of buying into sexualized media and believing they have to look or act a certain way in order to be valued. It is important to tell children to be proud of their bodies and their brains, and that they do not need to wear revealing clothes, or lots of makeup, or engage in any sexual behavior they are not ready for in order to be considered an adult.