CULTURE: by Melinda Tankard ReistNews Weekly
The sexualisation of girlhood
, December 26, 2009
In 2009, former Hi-5 children's entertainer Kellie Crawford posed for a lingerie photo shoot for men's magazine Ralph. The Ralph cover for April features Kellie in tiny knickers and black bra, and shouts "It's Hi-5 Hottie Kellie!" with the subtitle "Busting out some bedtime stories". In the accompanying interview, Kellie explained that as a children's star, she "just forgot I was a woman". She did the photo shoot to "find the woman in me".
I responded in media interviews by asking why it was that the Wiggles were not expected to prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks and having their photos taken for a magazine shoot, yet women were expected to take off most of their clothes to prove their womanhood?
One little girl in Victoria wrote me an email earlier this year, which I now quote with her permission:
"My name is Delaney and I am 10 years old. On Today Tonight
I saw a story about Kellie from Hi-5. Of course, you know that she has done a photo shoot for a men's magazine. I think it is very silly how she feels she has to do it. It sets a horrible example for younger kids like me. When I was little I used to love watching Hi-5 and it makes me feel dissappointed [sic] that she has done something like that."
Delaney, and girls like her, receive messages from every level of the media and popular culture that the baring of the female body is what makes you a "real woman". Very few young girls have Delaney's courage to distance themselves from this message. Ideal womanhood is now all about sexual allure; the ability to attract the male gaze has become what is important in life. As Pamela Paul writes in Pornified
, "being publicly sexual has become the only acceptable way for girls to demonstrate maturity".
The pressure to conform to an idealised body type in a sex-saturated culture that values girls who are thin, hot, sexy and "bad" is taking a terrible toll. Despite the many opportunities at school, university and in the workplace available to them, girls today are struggling. Courtney E Martin describes it as "the frightening new normalcy of hating your body". Self-hatred is so prevalent, it's like a rite of passage for teenage girls.
I know of a fit and healthy five-year-old who won't go swimming because, she says, people would laugh at her and say she's too fat. Eight year-old girls are admitted to hospital with eating disorders. Schoolgirls develop ranking systems on the basis of "hotness", resulting in guaranteed misery for the girl with the lowest ranking.
English girl Sasha Bennington absorbed today's messages about what constitutes female beauty early:
"Sasha ... has a spray tan once a week and a new set of acrylic nails once a month. Her hair is bleached white-blonde and regularly boosted with a set of extensions. She plucks her eyebrows and carefully applies makeup every morning. Her favourite outfit is a white satin boob-tube dress and Stetson hat. But Sasha isn't a Vegas showgirl - she goes to primary school and only turned 11 last week."
Sasha's bedroom, the UK Sun
article tells us, is "a pink shrine to Playboy, with a Playboy door curtain, satin duvet set, Playboy pillows and pyjamas". For Sasha, the thought of not being pretty is just too awful to contemplate.
Playboy make-up, including "Tie me to the bedpost blush" and "Hef's favourite lip gloss" (in colours Centrefold Red, Sex Kitten and Playmate Pink) is marketed to girls, along with Playboy doona covers and pencil cases. Girls are wearing the brand of the global sex industry directed by a sleazy 80-year-old man in silk pyjamas and they think it's about cute rabbits. When Hugh Hefner was asked by the Washington Post
about a growing trend among young girls to wear Playboy-logo clothing and accessories, he replied, "I don't care if a baby holds up a Playboy bunny rattle".
We see here a phenomenon identified by M. Gigi Durham as the Lolita Effect
, that is, "the distorted and delusional set of myths about girls' sexuality that circulates widely in our culture and throughout the world". Girls are encouraged "to flirt with a decidedly grown-up eroticism and sexuality".Impact
One mother described the impact of these myths on her 13-year-old daughter, in a poignant letter to The Age
"I am the mother of a 13-year-old girl. She is not overly developed, she does not wear makeup, she is aware of her burgeoning sexuality, but a little daunted by it and curious of it. Whenever I go out with her - be it to a shopping centre, a walk down the road or picking her up from school - she is gawked at, wolf-whistled and stared at by men usually aged in their 20s and 30s. It doesn't matter that she is standing with her mother. ... They do not hesitate for a second. ... Her girlfriends also suffer this indignity.
"I believe this is the result of the sexualisation of children that some men think it's fine to lust after them - and not just fine, but acceptable. ... I don't think it even enters these men's heads that it is not only offensive, but frightening to attract naked lust when you are only 13."This is an edited extract from Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist (Spinifex Press, 2009), available from News Weekly Books for $34.95.