Let Girls Be Girls: A Campaign to Eradicate the Commercial Sexualization of Young Girls


I once asked a friend of mine why her 10 year old daughter was wearing three inch platform sandals. I was appalled at how mature looking they were. Where are the Keds? She responded, “That’s all they have in the stores these days. That’s the style.” Add to marketing the peer pressure of pre-teens and you have a recipe for marketing-controlled, overly sexualized clothing for young children.

Read below about the “Let Girls Be Girls” campaign to reduce this oversexualization of young children and about the girls underwear at Wal-Mart that said “Who needs a credit card” on the front” and “When I have Santa” on the back.


Moral Panic?

This aim of this campaign is not to police the developing sexuality of children, or to deny that such a thing exists. Mumsnetters, on the whole, aren’t interested in protecting a misty ideal of “childhood innocence” – in fact, they’re pretty keen on being as honest as possible about sex.

But many argue that it’s difficult for children to learn about sexuality – and to decide for themselves how they’d like to express it  –  when they are bombarded with an all-pervasive ‘commodified’ version of female sexuality. This campaign aims, not to remove children’s control over their sexuality, but to give it back. 

And clearly, sexualisation doesn’t only affect children: many Mumsnetters feel that women too are, to varying degrees, affected by the sexual culture we live in. What can be done? The truth is, we don’t know. But we thought that our collective ‘consumer heft’ could be a good place to start, so we worked to influence the products that were being sold to our daughters, in the hope that the next generation of women will be better able to choose who they want to be.

30% of Girls’ Clothing Is Sexualized in Major Sales Trend

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Date: 20 May 2011 Time: 10:36 AM ET

The sexy-clothes trend

Handwringing over the sexualization of young girls is a common theme both in the media and in the mall. In 2007, Wal-Mart pulled a pair of girls’ underwear with the words “Who needs credit cards … ” on the front and “when you have Santa” on the back from the shelves after parental outcry. Those extreme cases get people’s ire up, said Sharon Lamb, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who was not involved in the research. But the trend is more insidious than single cases make it out to be, Lamb told LiveScience. [10 Surprising Sex Statistics]

“It’s not just this most outrageous thing,” said Lamb, author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketer’s Schemes” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). “It’s a lot of subtle little things, too.”

In 2007, Lamb was part of an American Psychological Association Task Force that reviewed the research on the consequences of sexualization for young girls. The task force found that girls who buy into sexualizing media messages are more likely to experience low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. One 1998 study found that girls made body-conscious by wearing swimsuits while they did a math test in an empty room did worse on the test than girls completing the same test while wearing sweaters. There were no differences in test-taking performance between boys wearing swimsuits and boys wearing sweaters, suggesting a link between self-objectification and shame and anxiety in girls.

In one yet-unpublished study, Murnen and her research team asked volunteers to look at pictures of the same fifth-grader dressed in sexualized, childish-but-sexualized, or non-sexualized clothing. The adult volunteers viewed the sexualized version of the girl as less competent, less intelligent, less moral and less self-respecting.

“And she’s a fifth-grade girl!” Murnen said. “The fact that they consider her less moral is really disturbing, as if we do blame her for her clothing choice.”

Marketing sexiness

In the newly published study, Murnen and her colleagues went through the children’s offerings of 15 national retailers, from high-end stores such as Neiman Marcus to inexpensive stores such as Kmart and Target. All of the clothes were sized and marketed for toddlers to pre-teen children. The researchers asked independent adult raters to judge 5,666 clothing items for whether they revealed or emphasized a sexualized body part such as the chest or buttocks and whether they had sexy characteristics such as slinky material, leopard print, or sexualized writing. The raters also looked for childlike characteristics such as frills or butterflies.

Of all clothing items, 31 percent had sexualizing features, the researchers found. Most of these, about 86 percent, had childlike characteristics combined with sexy characteristics. Abercrombie Kids was the worst offender, with 72 percent of clothes featuring a sexualizing aspect. Neiman Marcus boasted about 38 percent sexualized clothing.

Child-only stores like Gymboree tended to do well, though older girls might think of those stores as babyish, Murnen said. Target was one of the better stores, with 80 percent of their girls’ clothes falling in the “childlike” category.

“We think that it is bad right now in part of what is happening in the culture with the sexualization of women that has been documented,” Murnen said. “We think this is trickling down to girls.”

It’s easy to blame parents for buying sexy clothes for little girls, Lamb said, but that lets marketers off the hook.

“Blaming the parents is exactly what the marketers want you to do,” she said. “They spend $12 billion  getting your kids to want the things you don’t want them to have, and then they blame you for buying them.”

Murnen’s study appears online in the journal Sex Roles.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

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