“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: “It’s a girl.”
— Shirley Chisholm
Earlier this week, PeakCare staff were critically de-constructing a piece of current news. The article in question was from the Sydney Morning Herald, Tending to Children With the Bodies of Women. It definitely got me thinking. On average girls these days are menstruating earlier than in the past. During the 1900’s girls usually reached menarche (onset of periods) at around 14 or 15 years of age. Now the average onset is 12 years and seven months. While this represents a seemingly significant age difference I question if this reduction in age is surprising or even concerning. What concerns me is how some are responding to the changes, with such suggestions surfacing that parents should demonstrate more control over their daughters’ activity and weight levels and that a consequence of early menstruation is that girls will become sexualised earlier.
With the advent of the socially defined time of life marketed as ‘adolescence’ came consumerism. Childhood and adolescence became marketable and certain groups became extremely wealthy selling their messages of what it means to be young i.e. what you should eat, wear, listen to and read to fit in, in what was widely being recognised as a distinct youth culture. In order to sell their products to children, these businesses jumped on the band wagon of ‘sex sells’ and their target groups have been getting younger and younger.
I found out what a blow job was in grade six from a glossy magazine marketed to children ages 11 and up, children who I truly believe could have spent the next couple of years oblivious to such knowledge and perhaps been better for it. I mean does an 11 year old really need to know what a blow job is? What does such knowledge add to their life?
Is it surprising that both boys and girls are becoming sexualised earlier than ever before? I don’t think so, given what influences children these days are exposed to. Sexualised images are everywhere and despite a parent’s best attempt to restrict their children’s exposure, such messages are so persuasive that limiting exposure is near impossible short of ensuring your children walk through life under a sound proof potato sack.
It must be confusing for children to see sexualised messages everywhere, and sadly a lot are directed at them, and then to hear the other side of the debate with parents desperately trying to teach their children that it is ok to be young and that it is not uncool to engage in age appropriate behaviour.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the average age of a child’s first drink these days is around 14 compared with 17 and a half back in the seventies. I wonder if these changes represent the incessant push portrayed in the media and brands of what it means to be young and cool.
I think that as a society we need to question what all of this says about our society. I vouch that most parents would agree that this type of consumerism has gone too far. And really sadly, such marketing starts when children are still in nappies.
I once visited a shop, which will remain nameless, to buy my toddler girl a bathing suit. I was appalled by the selection! They were not bathing suits for young girls but for miniature adults. One particular number was a black bikini with racy hot pink and silver swirls. I found the experience quite scary and needless to say left empty handed. This form of sexualisation of young girls is everywhere while it seems little boys are left to be little boys for a little longer.
…..back to the original debate. There are many reasons why girls could be menstruating earlier than ever before (and I have not even mentioned the growth hormones and other chemicals now present in modern day food!!!) and responding by trying to delay this natural biological progression through encouraging parents to monitor children’s activity and weight levels is, I think, damaging and unnecessary. I am not suggesting that parents shouldn’t be aware of their children’s health, of course they should, but actively trying to delay puberty sets puberty up as something undesirable, something to be ashamed of and something that is not good. Instead of worrying that early onset puberty will produce a bunch of sexualised girls who are perhaps easy prey, I think we need to question society itself and why it seems to be okay for powerful media and brand interests to market sex to our children. Why are we sexualizing children? Who benefits?
As a mother of a young girl, I am concerned about these things. It seems to have gotten worse since I was young and I worry about how far it still might go. As a society we have a responsibility to protect our young and ensure they are well equipped to survive in an increasingly complex world. It is concerning because children are receiving messages about the world, how it works and how to fit in from businesses that have a vested interest in making money for themselves even if it is at the cost of others.
Currently, a particularly relevant issue in the spot light is whether child beauty pageants should be held in Australia, with the US group Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant announcing their plans to hold its first Australian competition in Melbourne. Ever since then there has been protests from parent groups, psychologists and children’s rights organisations with the Pull the Pin rallies receiving huge support from the community.
Lauren Thompson – MSW student on placement with PeakCare