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Baby Babes

“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

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    Great blog Lauren! I think you are talking about an issue that a lot of people are concerned about – and rightly so. Every week I drive to the Gold Coast to surf. On the way I have often seen billboards advertising ‘Longer Lasting Sex’. Whilst these adverts are not directly aimed at children, I often think about all the families driving to the coast for the weekend and the impact of these adverts on children. I wonder what children think of when they see those billboards and how parents answer the question, “What is sex?”.

    The National Framework says ‘Protecting Children is Everyone’s Buisness’. I believe if we are to truly take on board this message, society as a whole needs to share responsibility for preventing child abuse and neglect. To me this includes advertisers, media and industries such as fashion. It is probably hard to measure the impact in a child’s life of a billboard that talks about sex. Yet I feel it has a harmful impact on children and adolescents. Like you say in your blog, it introduces sex to children and young people at an age when it may be detrimental for them to know about it. I think this relates to child protection. We all need to act responsibly to prevent child abuse and neglect, not just the Human Services Sector.

    May 31, 2011
    • Lauren #

      Thanks for your comments Matt. The National Framework does say that child protection is everybody’s business and I agree. Though I question the feasibility of this message when the checks and balances in place for protecting our children’s exposure to inappropriate material seem to be so lacking. Is the government responsible for reigning in the media and brand interests? Are companies going so far to sell their products because they can? This debate then opens a whole other can of worms. I have heard Australia increasingly being referred to as the ‘nanny state’, but is some form of nannying required here to protect our children? I’d be happy for that if it meant my daughter could grow up in a safe enviornment where it was cool to be young and be doing young people activities.
      It all comes down to power and unfortunately media and brand interests wield much more than the average parent and arguably even the government at times.
      How can the government argue that child protection is everybody’s business when the playing field is so unequal? How can parents protect their children when they have little or even no say in what their children are exposed to?

      June 3, 2011
  2. Deb Walsh #

    I agree, great blog Lauren. I, too, despair at the sexualisation of our children and have taken great comfort that the response to the proposal to launch such beauty pageants in Australia has been to demonstrate against them. Reading the work of Melinda Tankard Reist and others who write against the sexualisation of children while depressing can make one realise that we need to act against it in everyway possible.
    Keep up the great blogs.
    Deb

    June 1, 2011
    • Lauren #

      I agree Deb that something needs to be done before it gets worse. I look forward to looking into some Melinda Tankard Reist’s work!

      June 3, 2011
  3. bec #

    As a mother my self i totaly relate to this blog and agree. Why is it that as a socity we want to protect our child from such things but we are the first to subject our children to the whole issue of sex sells. Iam disgutesd in all the clothes and binkis out there my child is 2 i want her to look cute but not to show of her body, to find a swim suite to covers her and proctets her the prey of all theose eyes lookin is rare have we really lost all our morals just so the big companys can make money ? And the issue of child beauty pagents does the name says it all “beauty” the title suggests u have to look good to get attention, what ever happen to getting attention by using our brains and wits, At the age of 21 i have realised looks dont matter u maybe the hottest person but having no personality and brains faults u and makes u seem like an airhead. I pride my self on working hard on making a true living for myself and child and not spending all my time on working on my looks.

    June 1, 2011
    • Lauren #

      Hi Bec,

      Thanks so much for your post. You raise some really valid points. I too am appalled by some of the clothes out there for young girls. It’s just nuts and there is no conceivable reason for it apart from ignorance and greed.

      I have heard advocates of beauty pagents arguing that the pagents themseleves are not about the ‘beauty’ of the child but of how the child presents themselves, how confident they are and if they are seen to be having fun. I think great doesn’t sound too bad! BUT wait a minute why is it that the girls are dressed up like barbie dolls with hair extensions and a mountain of glitter, make up and hair spray. If it is truly not about beauty then why such a focus on looks. Why not let the child just be themself? I shudder when I think about the impact of these pagents on the young contestants. How does it set them up for life?

      I truly hope that Australia does not embrace this form of morbid entertainment.

      June 3, 2011
  4. For me this issue is intrinsically connected to larger social issues such as the sexual exploitation of children, young people and women; the sexual abuse in our families and our communities; the trends (ever increasingly younger)toward body dysmorphia,eating disorders,self harming and the explicit blaming and shaming of people who have been victims of sexual aggression – to name but a few. I have to wonder if we are not actually preparing our young girls to be the accepting targets of such aggressions; not because they “ask for it”, but because they live within a culture that expects such violence and tacitly or explicitly allows it to continue.

    It’s not an issue that impacts some girls, or some women – it’s an issue that impacts us all.

    Fiona

    June 1, 2011
    • Lauren #

      I think that as a society we need to adhere to the message that violence is never ok. But this is problemtic to promote because violence and violent messages are everywhere and as a nation we also display violence by taking part in war. It is a difficult problem and there needs to be critical and careful thought around how best to approach it. Message, even subtle ones are extrememly influential and we need to look at what kind of messages we are putting out there and if they are ok. This is especially so for young people.
      An interesting and thought provoking post Fiona. Thanks !

      June 3, 2011
  5. Lindsay Wegener, Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland #

    You’ve kicked off a good discussion Lauren. I think that the debate that has been taking place about the “beauty pageants” will be very interesting to follow. It raises challenging questions about the extent to which governments can or should intervene to protect the safety and best interests of children. For example, should governments use their powers to ban pageants of this type or is this going too far? Is the better solution one that involves the use of coercive action and legal penalties or is it one that seeks to influence the thinking and understanding of parents and society generally? Is it better to legislate or educate? Or is it necessary to sometimes do both?

    I was fortunate enough to holiday in Rome a couple of years ago and found myself being continually surprised by the way people drove. Admittedly, it was pointed out to me that, in Rome, it is best to regard the lines on the road as providing a “rough guide” only about which side of the road is best to travel on. What surprised me most however was the absence of helmets worn by the riders of numerous scooters and bikes whipping around the chaotic and crowded streets. And even more surprising was the frequent sight of very young children – also without helmets – riding pillion or precariously perched on the handlebars of these fast-travelling bikes and scooters! It’s one thing to know that different countries have different “rules” to protect the safety of their citizens and children in particular, but it is another thing entirely when you see these “rules” in action – it comes as quite a culture shock!

    It made me wonder about the criteria that different countries use in balancing the civil rights of parents with the rights of children to safety and protection. What are the threshold points at which determinations are reached that the safety and best interests of children exceed all other considerations and laws become necessary?

    What does seem very clear to me is that, irrespective of the steps that may or may not be taken in the future concerning the introduction of legislation to protect the safety and best of children – whether that be in relation to children’s “beauty pagaents” or any other matter impacting their safety and well-being – there is a responsibilty held by members of the child protection sector to be continually promoting and engaging in the kinds of discussions that bring the best interets of children to the forefront of public attention, that assist parents to make informed decisions and that influence and shape the beliefs and values of the society in which we wish our children to be living. I think that this discussion has been in keeping with this responsibility.

    June 5, 2011
    • Good call Lindsay! Child and family welfare practitioners have an important role to play in looking at and de-constructing current news and social issues through the critical lens of their profession. The issue of child pageants, whilst perhaps not immediately linked to child and family welfare has some significant implications for children, their families and for our society as a whole.

      Australia continues to attract media attention with it’s efforts to ban pageants. News stories such as this one from the U.S Child beauty pageant imported from America contradicts Australian values, Aussies say or this one from NZ Child beauty pageants heading downunder show us this issue is topical, hotly debated, and capturing international attention.

      It’s wonderful to hear people’s comments that child protection is everyone’s business – I couldn’t agree more. Understanding that the sacred charge to protect may actually begin by looking at seemingly unrelated issues such as the attempt to ban child pageants in Australia; is actually a forward thinking step to ensuring the issues facing vulnerable children, young people and their families are made explicit. After-all, if we can’t name the problem, we are unlikely to be able to solve it!

      Fiona – Training and Development Manager

      June 6, 2011

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