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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On little girls, torpedo bras, and clutching at pearls

Have you heard about the latest Toddlers and Tiaras shocker? (Okay, maybe it’s not the latest, but I don’t keep up with these things.) Some two-year-old - yes, I said two - did a pageant routine in which she came out dressed like an angel, then stripped off the robe to reveal a  pint-size version of Madonna’s  gold-colored Blonde Ambition costume, complete with torpedo-tit bra.

And, as is the intention behind Toddler and Tiaras, mothers everywhere gasped in horror and clutched their pearls. When I stumbled across this on the Internet, I gasped, too. (I rarely wear pearls, but if I’d happened to have them on that day, I would have clutched furiously.) It’s truly horrifying. See it here if you have the stomach.

This Madonna-and-child tale reminded me of some other incidents that had elicited pretty much the same reaction last year: A popular retail chain (Abercrombie) introduced push-up bikini tops for little girls,  and then a French company rolled out a line of sexy lingerie for little girls.

The underlying issue, of course, is the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls. These examples are so over the top, so blatant, and so tasteless, one can’t help but be shocked.

But there’s something that’s been eating at me ever since the lingerie story broke last year, and little Mia, with her weapons-of-mass-destruction bra, compels me to say it.

Sexualization is not just about a bra, nor is it just about a way of dancing or posing. Sexualization is about the awareness of, and involvement in, your own sexuality. It’s about the willingness - desire, even - to make yourself the object of sexual desire. It’s about the need to feel sexually attractive, and to devote your time and attention to making yourself sexually attractive. All of which is, within the bounds of reason, appropriate for adults.

A great many of the mothers who are driven to pearl-clutching by a toddler wearing a gold cone-bra Madonna costume, and by an ad for little girls’ lingerie, are active participants in the premature sexualization of their daughters.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty harsh, and I’ve been hesitating to say it. But let’s be real.

For over half a century, the rules of childhood have been loosening. With the rise of movements seeking to empower previously disenfranchised segments of society came a new awareness of children as individuals, with ideas and opinions that adults should acknowledge and respect. And of course, hot on the heels of that change came businesses eager to sell clothing and accessories that emphasize the new, elevated status of children - basically, by dressing them more like adults. In no time, an enormous industry was born, selling fashions to girls that looked more like miniature versions of their mothers’ wardrobes than like the childish clothes of yore.

It’s no surprise that, with girls looking more adult than ever, and with the general loosening of societal restrictions on childhood, lots of mothers took it even further, taking license to treat their young daughters to special, grown-up-ladies stuff. Manicures. High heels. Facials. Makeovers. And what is all that, if not the devotion of time and attention to making yourself sexually attractive? In short, sexualization?

I’ve heard it said many times that these kinds of things aren’t designed to create sexual appeal, but rather to just “feel pretty” and “pamper yourself.” It’s fun, they say. To which I reply, bullshit. A 5-year-old, or even an 8-year-old, has to be taught to consider it fun to sit still for an hour while her nails and hair are done. And I’m sorry, but if you believe in the inherent aesthetic value of heels and makeup, divorced from their sexual connotations in the human mating game, you’ve been drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. The fun in looking and acting like a sexualized adult is learned behavior. If you don’t believe me - watch Toddlers and Tiaras.

So this kind of direct sexualization of children is something relatively new. But it’s particularly nefarious in combination with the pitfalls of traditional femininity, which teaches girls to value appearance over achievement, beauty over intelligence, allure over comfort. Most of us still model at least some of that for our daughters. When we obsess about our weight, won’t be seen without our makeup, destroy our feet in heels, and console ourselves with “retail therapy,” the message is pretty clear: How we look is as important - hell, more important - than what we do, what we know, or how we feel.

One of the toughest truths about parenting is that the rationalizations we use with ourselves don’t work on our kids. We can tell ourselves that the yo-yo dieting is all about health, or that the frequent primping is our way of pampering ourselves - but our kids know better. They intuit the psychology behind these behaviors - and they internalize it. Every time we pass the full-length mirror and check to see if our butts look big, they get the message loud and clear: For a woman, looking good is job one.

And, yes, that’s sexualization, too. The old-fashioned kind that’s been going on for a long, long time.

I guess I should feel heartened that we still experience the communal gasp over the more extreme version, the outrageously overdone toddler fembot. But my gut is telling me that we’re actually heading in the wrong direction: not toward giving our daughters the strength and confidence to value what they know and what they achieve over how they appear, but away from it. And I’m afraid that, in the not-too-distant future, the toddler fembot will barely raise an eyebrow.

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