Sexy ads sell–to little girls?

Have you heard about Thylane Blondeau, the 10-year-old model who caused such a stir this summer with her pictures in French Vogue?

In the pictures, she is made up to the hilt, in provocative poses, vamping for the camera. It caused outrage in the media and blogosphere, with people saying that it is wrong for a child to be so sexualized.

I showed the video to my 10-year-old daughter to get her reaction. “That’s horrible,” she said. When I asked her why, she said it was because Thylane was dressed like a grown-up.  The clothing and the makeup she was wearing in the pictures were not okay, according to Natasha. “She’s only ten!” she said.

(Click here to see an ABC News clip on the shoot.)

Well, okay then. This is so wrong that even a 10-year-old sees it immediately.

10- year-old model Thylane Blondeau in Vogue

But wait. When I showed Natasha pictures of clothes on websites, and asked her what she liked, she pointed to short skirts, tight fitting shirts, spaghetti-strap tops, and low-riding slim jeans. She may draw the line at makeup and vamping like a grown-up, but she has been clearly affected by the media messaging that sexy is beautiful.

Sex sells.  So sex is everywhere in marketing and media. But what’s disturbing is that it’s even in advertising and products directed at children, especially “tweens” like Natasha. There are Bratz dolls wearing short skirts and fishnet stockings. There’s lingerie marketed to little kids. Barbies have impossibly little waists and big breasts. Abercrombie and Fitch recently caught flack for selling thong underwear to tweens.

This is more than just creepy; it can have real effects, particularly on girls. According to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association, sexualization is bad for girls because:

  • Worrying how they look can make it hard for them to concentrate on schoolwork and other tasks.
  • It can cause emotional problems such as shame, anxiety, and self-disgust.  Sexualization is linked with the three most common mental health problems in girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
  • It creates unrealistic and/or negative expectations about sexuality
  • It encourages girls to think of themselves purely as sexual objects

It’s the insidiousness that worries me. Even though I don’t buy Natasha sexy clothing, she wants it. She thinks of it as desirable, thinks of it as what will make her desirable—she thinks about being desirable. At ten. Independently of anything she has ever heard at home.

I didn’t deal with this so much with my older daughters. There was less of this going on when my now 20-year-old was a tween, and my 14-year-old daughter is more into grunge and Converse high-tops and alternative rock. So I admit, I got complacent. I didn’t fully realize that it’s not enough to just not buy the stuff. We can’t be with our daughters every moment of every day, critiquing and filtering. We can’t control everything they see on TV or the Internet or magazines or billboards when they aren’t with us. We can’t control what the kids around them say or do.

So what we have to do is give our daughters are the perspective and skills they need to navigate all the crazy messaging themselves.

We need to teach our daughters to look critically at the marketing and media, and help them see how sex is being used (which means talking with them about sex, sometimes earlier than we’d planned). We need to talk with them about the ads and messages, asking them what they think and how it makes them feel—already, some of Natasha’s responses have surprised me. But those surprises are helpful, because they give me a chance to guide and teach.

We need to teach our daughters that beauty is more than skin deep.  We say it all the time—it sounds so trite at this point—but in this sexified world we need to do so much more than say it. We need to get our daughters involved in exercise and sports so that they learn to feel strong and good about their bodies for what they can do, not what they look like. We need to find and support and celebrate our daughters’ strengths, every bit of creativity and aptitude and interest, and make a way bigger deal out of those than how they look. We need to find the role models, the women who make a difference as politicians and activists and athletes, and teach our daughters to emulate them.

We need to be careful, too, about what we say about the media—and about what clothes we buy and what we say about our own bodies. Actions speak louder than words, and our kids are always watching us.

It will take work to fight the forces that put Thylane Blondeau into Vogue. But we can do it. Our daughters are worth it.

For more information on how the media affects body image, and what parents can do, visit the Center on Media and Child Health. Sample topics include: