Middle school innocence hits an all-time low
By Erika Titkemeyer
It’s hard not to notice the change that is taking place in younger girls today. You’ve seen the pre-teen girls at the mall – the ones with the spaghetti-strap shirts and the mini-skirts. They cake on makeup and spend hours (not to mention tons of money) on their hair, as if it’s their only chance to win a boy. They don’t bother with their times tables and do their nails instead. And whether they’re Playboy bunnies or French maids for Halloween, it’s hard not to worry about who these young girls will become after the age of 12.
“A couple years ago nobody would have sex, but now if you want to be cool you have sex,” says my 13-year-old cousin Rachel, who, at the age of 9, I was already calling a hoochie mama. Urban dictionary defines it as “a polite term used by women to define other women as sluts.” But my cousin wasn’t a woman, and I wasn’t being polite. She was barely out of 4th grade, learning to use make-up and buying skirts and frilly underwear (as if someone was going to see it), all in the early stages of middle school.
When I was 9 I was out playing basketball on my driveway or selling lemonade from my doorstep. But Rachel preferred to spend her time gossiping about who made out with whom, while perusing the extra small tube-tops in Macy’s with her girlfriends.
Researchers have differing explanations for why girls are being sexualized at an earlier age. Some researchers blame it on the fact that girls are reaching puberty earlier, in a historical sense. An article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health claim that children are merely healthier than those in the past and therefore hit puberty earlier. Other researchers blame early menarche and breast development on the increased usage of hormones in cow’s milk, and they recommend girls drink organic milk instead. Whether or not any of this is valid, Marcia Herman-Giddens explains on the New Women’s College Hospital Web site that the earlier onset of puberty is a cause for concern. Early puberty, she claims, “leads to earlier sexual activity…earlier drinking and smoking” along with “poor school performance, health risk behaviors and gang membership.”
But Carla Golden, a psychology professor at Ithaca College, does not buy into the puberty theory. She believes that “we like cases that are extreme,” and that “the difference [in the age girls hit puberty] is not enough to account for their sexualization.
“It’s a marketing thing,” she says.
Like Golden, the American Psychological Association Task Force blames the media and marketing in a 2007 report on the sexualization of girls. The report looks closely at media content that children encounter as they grow up. Music, TV, movies, music videos, video games, magazines and the Internet are all put on trial in the report, as are clothes and Barbie dolls.
The report analyzes the amount of sexual imaging found in each medium. Fifty-seven percent of music videos studied, for instance, “featured a woman portrayed exclusively as a decorative sexual object,” Magazines, through their images and articles, seemed to present women with the goal to look “desirable…thereby gaining the attention of men.”
The Internet is a different kind of threat. It gives young girls a portal to display their sexuality for others to see.
“Girls have MySpace [pages] in 5th grade,” Rachel told me. “Almost every girl in my grade has one and in 7th grade, too. Pretty much, the thing now for girls is taking pictures of themselves bending down, showing off their boobs.”
Some girls even lie about their age. It came as a shock to me to find that Rachel’s MySpace page states that she is 17. Younger girls in elementary schools and middle schools are also finding ways to get their own Facebook pages, in order to show off their self-portraits.
The APA points out that it isn’t just the media causing girls to feel pressured into being more sexual beings. “Clothing stores sell thongs sized for 7- to 10-year-old girls, some printed with slogans such as ‘eye candy’ or ‘wink wink,’” the report says. Even I have run into 12-year-olds in line at the mall, thong in hand, smiling with their braces protruding.
Aside from thongs, the other hot item seems to be the Bratz dolls, which the APA report describes as “a multiethnic crew of teenagers who are interested in fashion, music, boys and image. Bratz girls are marketed in bikinis, sitting in a hot tub, mixing drinks and standing around.” This product is far from the American Girl dolls my generation played with. When we played with dolls, my friends and I never outfitted our toys to show off their midriffs.
The upshot of all these trends is that girls are faced with images on every screen and magazine that define how they should look. They’re socialized to abide by what Golden refers to as “the heterosexual script,” which puts all girls into the same sexual role. There’s a nasty circle of sexualizing beginning, Golden says, in which girls “want to live up to being girly” so they can resemble their peers and fit in.
It’s clear that women have made huge strides recently in the workforce and in women’s rights generally. But as Golden explains, “Girls can be smart, they can go to the moon, but they have to look a certain way.”
So while 5-year-old girls are playing house with their Barbie or Bratz dolls, they won’t even notice how their gender identity is being manipulated in ways that will push them to go out and buy that teeny thong the night of their 6th grade dance.
Erica Titkemeyer is a sophomore cinema and photography major who stills sits with the most popular girl on the TCAT. Email her at etitkem1[at]ithaca.edu.