Parents becoming complicit in the sexualisation of children

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

Last week, four-year-old Maddy Jackson appeared on the US reality show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ wearing a padded bra. Her mother also gave her a padded bottom and made her don a peroxide wig in an attempt to make her look like Dolly Parton. I am disgusted by this mother – the lengths that some people go to for a few minutes of fame has really hit an all time low. Where is Maddy’s father – why is he not stopping this?

I am disturbed by some mothers in Britain too – the one who gives her 4 year old a spray tan, the one who teaches her 7 year old pole dancing and the one who injects her 8 year old with botox. And these are the cases that we know about through media. I wonder how many more parents are encouraging their little girls to grow up too quickly. Television, magazines, music and clothing are already sexualising children, so when mothers start joining in, then things have just gone too far!

At the other end of the spectrum, I am also troubled by a minority of conservative Muslim parents who are making girls as young as three, four and five wear hijabs (headscarves) despite it not being a religious obligation for them. It may be unintentional, but they are also sexualizing their children because the purpose of the hijab is to prevent unwanted male sexual attention. By wrapping little girls in headscarves they are being treated as sex objects, who apparently need to be covered up. A healthy balance can be struck on children’s appearance without going to such extremes.

Many of us would be critical of the parents mentioned so far. But how many of us are also sending the wrong messages to our children through inappropriate choices that we are making unconsciously. I blame the mothers because women are making majority of the purchasing decisions. They are buying high-heeled shoes, provocative underwear and sexy clothing. Kids wear adorned with slogans that are sexist or have sexual innuendoes are also regularly being bought. Here are some examples of the types of slogans that have appeared on girl tops: “Future WAG”, “Future Porn Star”, “So Many Boys, So Little Time.” Babies have not been spared from sleaze either and wording has included, “I love boobies” and “Mother Sucker.” A couple of years ago there was outrage in New Zealand when babywear featured, “I’m Living Proof My Mum is Easy”, and “The Condom Broke.” I know sex sells, but this is ridiculous!

Last week, another T-shirt caused controversy for being sexist. It was covered with, “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” JC Penney, a national retailer in the US, discontinued the ‘Too pretty’ T-shirt within 24 hours of a petition going viral on social media. However, another T-shirt is still being sold in their stores, which says, “My best subjects are boys, shopping, music and dancing.” When I asked my 9-year-old daughter about her views on these, she said, “boys have superheroes on their clothes who are strong and powerful, why can’t girls be told they have girl power.” She has written a blog titled ‘Pretty Clever’ on the topic. I wanted a male perspective too so I asked my 10-year-old son for his opinion and his response was interesting. He said: “the slogans are unfair on both girls and boys because girls are being told they are dumb and they won’t learn anything while boys have to do double work!”

Some people will view these slogans as harmless humour – but sleazy and demeaning messages are no joke. Not only do they undermine women’s fight for respect and equality, the accumulative effect is damaging. Girls are being prevented from reaching their full potential because they are being conditioned into believing they are not clever and to focus on appearance, boys, and sex. Why are parents buying into these stereotypes? If we don’t stop now, the obsession with looks will lead to problems later such as body image dissatisfaction, wanting plastic surgery, eating disorders, low self esteem and depression. If kids are looking and behaving like mini adults, then they are also more likely to engage in sexual behaviour at an earlier age. It’s no wonder that the US has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world and the UK has the highest rate in Western Europe.

Now that the government is clamping down on retailers, magazines and broadcasters, we should see less sexualized products and imagery. This will mean less pressure by children on parents. However, recommendations in the Bailey Report on the ‘Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood’ are only being enforced through voluntary regulations and not legislation. Major British retailers may have signed up to comply but they will always try and constantly push the boundaries.

The only beneficiaries to the sexulisation of children are the corporations and of course pedophiles – after all, sexualisation, whether through adverts, music or products, is a form of grooming. Parents have been helping the very companies that are profiting from the exploitation of their children by buying from them. If we continue then we will be complicit in the sexualisation of our own children. Let’s stop right now and not rob them of their childhood.

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