Sexualization of Children

Introduction

Bare midriffs, spaghetti strap tops, skinny jeans and short shorts all once belonged in the realm of teen/young adult clothing yet as of late there has been a growing trend wherein such clothing choices have now become common place among children aged 12 and below (Gill, 137-160).

Such is the influence of modern day popular culture that sexualization and objectification has not been limited to adults and teens but has now begun to encompass children as young as 7 to 10 years of age (Bill, 1). Sexualization can be defined as process where an individual’s sense of personal “value” is actually based on sex appeal or a predefined and narrow standard of attractiveness (Goodin et al. 1).

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This has resulted in the proliferation of numerous clothing lines, products and even popular culture shows which place a certain degree of sexualization on children resulting in the creation of what is now perceived as a cultural norm when it comes to children wearing clothes or displaying behaviors with distinct sexual undertones that is many years ahead of when they should be displaying such attitudes (Bartlett, 106-11).

Even parents themselves have contributed to the modern day adoption of the idea that it’s perfectly alright to employ a certain degree of sexualization on children as evidenced by their continued patronage of toys, clothing styles and TV shows for their children that have themes depicting early child sexualization (Albiniak, 1).

Based on this it can clearly be seen that children have been sexualized at an earlier age as compared to their counterparts form 30 years ago yet it must be questioned whether such an early rate of sexualization actually has an adverse impact on their emotional, behavioral and social development.

Several studies examining early childhood development do indicate that a child’s formative years (age 4 to 12) is a period in which they begin to develop the behavioral characteristics and ideologies that influence their subsequent adult behaviors and actions. Aspects related to religion, culture and ideologies introduced during this early stage of development reflect well into adulthood and become an integral aspect of who a person is to become.

It is based on this developmental backdrop that parents and society developed the notion that early onset exposure to sexualized content will have an adverse effect on a child’s development and as such children should be inculcated early on with positive societal messages in the form of cooperation, peaceful action and other similar behavioral characteristics that espouse the creation of a socially acceptable persona (Kopkowski, 220).

Other studies though have stated that sexualized media in modern day popular culture such as those seen in TV shows, movies and magazines and other similar forms of consumable media actually have a positive effect on children resulting in the development of independent, socially well adjusted children that from an early age are capable of utilizing what they perceive from sexualized media to become more socially well adjusted as compared to their peers that have been exposed to little if next to no sexualized content.

What such studies are attempting to suggest is that the early sexualization that children are exposed to as a result of modern day pop culture and the media actually leads them to experience the full gamut of emotions denied to them by their parents and society as a direct result of the prevailing social idea that children should not exposed to sexuality at an early age (Merskin, 119-129).

In the words of Melanie Moore “it enables them to explore the inescapable feelings that they’ve been taught to deny and to reintegrate those feelings into a more whole, more complete and more resilient selfhood”. While such notions are relatively alien to the current prevailing societal consensus regarding children and sexuality it does make a valid argument.

Sexuality is an aspect of normal human behavior, while society disparages its utilization and expression it must be noted that it is a normal feeling that has been with humans since the beginning of evolution. Coming to a complete realization of its effective utilization while at the same time limiting its use through calm analytic thinking is actually a rite of passage for most individuals.

It is based on this what this study will attempt to confirm is whether the current trend in the early sexualization of children has a purely negative effect or if there is an underlying positive effect to this level of exposure. From a certain perspective it can be stated that: it is only due to age old conservative social institutions that it is believed that children are being sexualized at an early age when it fact there is no particular limit to the age in which children should learn aspects related to being a mature individual.

Negative Influence of Popular Culture on the Concept of Beauty and Sexuality

The influence of popular culture on modern day society can be interpreted as a form of irrational exuberance which is defined as the act of people modeling their behavior on the actions of other people without sufficient justification for doing so.

In the case of children models/child actors seen in magazines and print ads children/parents see these models, which pop culture defines as the epitome of beauty, and attempt to emulate them by buying the products that the magazines say can help you achieve the same level of flawlessness as them (Schwed, 19). Yet this beauty is nothing more than a false image made to entice the masses towards buying a particular product however this doesn’t stop people from attempting to emulate them in whatever way they possibly can.

What must be understood is that ours is a culture obsessed with the idea of perfect beauty; flawless skin, blemish free features, thin waistlines, striking eyes, perfect noses and not a pimple in sight yet such an obsession has been fueled by nothing more than lies and hypocrisy which has all been for the sake of making money (APA: Analysis Of Published Research Shows Sexualized Images Harmful To Girls, Women, 1).

The fashion industry alones makes billions of dollars a year by presenting women with products and clothing styles that are meant to emphasize sexiness or make them look more like the “standards” of physical attractiveness that many magazines espouse.

Yet this is nothing more than a farce; such beauty and elegance can be summed up in one word “Photoshop”; they aren’t real, no one has eyes that striking, no one has legs that flawless, people don’t glisten in natural light, they really aren’t that thin, and hair doesn’t normally shimmer that way as if they stepped straight out of a Palmolive commercial.

It is fake, unnatural yet it has created an obsession with beauty and perfection that has dominated the fashion industry resulting in the proliferation of photoshopped imagery on almost every page of major fashion magazines around the world (Reynolds, 9).

Not only that, sensuality and sexiness have now become so integrated into modern day popular culture that the sheer proliferation of ads, commercials, movies and TV shows that emphasize the necessity of women appearing in this particular fashion has begun to affect children wherein they themselves look at the sensual and the sexy and develop the notion that this is what they should be (Harris, 1).

Evidence of this can easily be seen in the current proliferation of modern day media in the form of TV shows and movies which also show child stars and actors in various revealing styles of sexualized clothing, scenes or basically wearing a lot of makeup that is more suitable for adults (Odone, 18). This has furthered reinforced the message being presented by photoshopped model images in that in order to be considered beautiful you must try to emulate the model that the pictures in magazines show (International Business, 12).

Media/Social Media that Causes Kids to be Sexualized at an Early Age

Action figures, dolls and cartoons are an ubiquitous part of the childhood of most people within the U.S., with various individuals owning/ watching some variation of these aspects of popular culture in one form or another. Based on various studies of childhood development children actually looked up to and tried to emulate the attitudes and characteristics of the cartoons they saw on television.

When examining past and current trends in cartoons, action figures and dolls a rather strange phenomenon was noticed wherein over the years since the 1980s action figures and cartoon heroes took on greater degrees of musculature and size resulting in almost freakishly large heroes as compared to their counterparts prior to the 1980s. Even dolls for girls took on greater degrees of overtly sexual characteristics with emphasis being placed on looks, sexuality and fashion.

Behavioral Development

While most individuals merely categorized this as a changing trend which was a direct result of the shifting nature of popular culture it must be noted that such changes had a distinct impact on the mannerisms, attitudes and manner in which children believed they should act and mature into.

Studies examining the resulting developmental characteristics of children who grew up prior to the overly muscular and sexual trend of the 1980s showed nearly opposite developmental beliefs compared to children who grew up during and after the 1980s trend.

It was noted that male children who grew up during and after the trend developed the notion that being overly muscular was normal and a state to develop into. It was a notion that was completely at odds with the idea of children who grew up prior to the trend who believed an average non-muscular physique was normal and what should be attained.

This particular difference was also noted in female children who believed that the overtly sexual style and concentration on appearance, fashion and sexuality was what they needed to become in order to be considered normal as compared to the popular notions among children prior to the 1980s which showcased a vastly different and more conservative view on what was considered normal (Helping Kids Manage Their Media, 37).

Cultural Impact

What must be understood is that the resulting cultural impact of the change in the depiction of toys and cartoon heroes into either overly muscular or overly sexual characters was noted as being one of the reasons behind the prevalence of various individual behavioral characteristics today such as the belief that looking muscular will make a person popular, that overly sexualized clothing is normal and that violence is a regular aspect of life (Helping Kids Manage Their Media, 37).

While it may be true that such characteristics do not define a majority of the population it is still prevalent in large percentages with various studies confirming that one of the reasons behind their prevalence is their connection to the trend mentioned throughout this paper that began in the 1980s and continues to this day.

Pop Culture and Identification

One of the prevailing arguments against letting children see sexualized media is the supposed potential that exists of children imitating what they see in magazines, movies and television shows (Helping Kids To Stop Celebrating Consumption, 11) (Let’s stop teaching preschoolers to be sexy, 220).

Studies examining the effect pop culture has on children reveal that on average children, especially young children, have the tendency to emulate child pop culture icons such as Hannah Montana, Spongebob Squarepants and other similar forms of identifiable imagery (Nairn, 54-60). In fact this behavioral aspect is even noted in members of the adult community and as such is the basis for many arguments stating the potentially harmful effects sexualized media could have on a child’s “proper” sexual development.

What must be understood is that the arguments being presented neglect to take into account the fact that parental influences play a contributing and limiting factor to some aspects of a child’s behavior and as such should be trusted as a means of enabling children to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong (Young, 10).

In fact, various studies have even shown that parental influences play a major role in personality development resulting in either proper growth and maturity or the instilment of negative personality traits similar to immaturity, dependence, and an overall sense of being unable to become self-reliant (Parsons, 5).

The development of a child’s behavior is not dependent on consumable media alone but rather on how parent’s influence and mold a child’s behavior. As such even though sexualized media content is introduced to a child it can be stated that so long as parents are there to enable a child to distinguish right from wrong then there is little cause for concern (Egan and Hawkes, 307-322).

It must be noted though that in cases where there is a distinct degree of parental absenteeism a child’s behavioral development will thus be predominantly influenced by external sources which should be a cause for concern since such instances have been shown to be influential factors in the development of abnormal personality traits which manifest in early onset sexually deviant behavior.

Development and Human Emotion

Studies examining the prevalence of independent action and initiative in children show that on average children with the most well rounded set of emotional development often show the most drive and initiative when it comes to independent action and leadership roles.

While various studies which have examined the potential effect of early child sexualization may not explicitly state it in their articles it is actually implied that children who are not exposed to certain types of “mature” media tend to not develop independent personalities but rather take on dependent behavioral characteristics (Hatch, 195-211).

It must be noted that society’s adherence to the belief that exposure to sexuality is bad for children has in fact resulted in parents developing parental practices that espouse isolation from any and all forms of reference to sexual behaviors (Combe, 104). In fact such practices have grown to such an extent that the concept of social conformity and how the expression of sexuality is an adverse form of behavior is often forced upon children resulting in the suppression of the development of certain aspects of their emotional makeup.

This has resulted in children developing behavioral characteristics akin to dependence, conformity and a distinct lack of initiative due to a form of trauma in which they associate aspects related to socially unacceptable conduct to the suppressive actions of their parents.

This causes them to withdraw into themselves rather than become more expressive. As various studies have noted which have examined this type of phenomena children that are allowed to be exposed to “mature” media (sexualized content, violent shows etc.) tend to be more expressive, open minded and have more access to the full gamut of their emotional capacities compared to children whose emotional growth has been inadvertently suppressed by their parents.

What must be understood is the fact that current day parental practices assume that exposure to sexualization is bad based on preconceived societal notions when in fact there have been few studies which have actually successfully connected early sexualization to children developing into sexually deviant adults (Fox, 77).

In fact, for the most part children exposed to various forms of sexualized media and products appear, for all intents and purposes, perfectly normal and turn into well rounded individuals. It must be noted that the parental predilection to believe that sexualized media has negative implications on children is grounded in institutional theory.

Institutional theory specifically states that people have the tendency to adhere to traditional institutions rather than move towards more efficient newer institutions due to their belief that older institutions are more stable due to prolonged length of time that they’ve been around. In this particular case parents adhere to a specific type of social institution that believes that sexualized media and advertisements will create sexually deviant children and adults.

Several studies examining parental predilections towards this particular type of institution have noted that when questioned as to why they adhere to the social institution in question the essence of all answers given show that parents do so due to their belief that since the institution has been around for such a long period of time and that it is widely accepted means that it must be right.

What must be understood is that just because a social institution is widely accepted and has been around for a long time doesn’t make it automatically right. For example, one of the most widely accepted social institutions in the past was the belief that men were superior to women, this resulted in women being thought of as incapable of doing certain jobs, that the place of a woman was at home and that women did not have the right to decide the future of a country.

Suffice it to say, such a view has been recently debunked however it must be noted that it had persisted for several hundred years with most of human culture adhering to its tenets. It is based on this that the social institution advocating that sexualized media is bad for children should not be immediately credited as being absolutely correct. Historical precedent has shown that not all widely accepted societal views are correct and thus this one should not be considered as an absolute truth.

Conclusion

Based on the various examples presented it can be seen that the preconceived notions attached to sexualization is in fact fallacious and heavily embedded in parental practices that originate from a social institution that may not necessarily be correct. As it was shown by the various studies cited, children that are exposed to sexualized media in the form of advertisements, movies and TV shows develop into mature and behaviorally stable adults with few problems.

In fact when taking the views of articles presented into consideration it can even be stated that the introduction of sexualized media can in fact enable children to develop stronger and more independent personalities that will enable them to express themselves better, take the initiative more and be more likely to overcome adverse situations as compared to their peers that were not exposed to sexualized media.

While it may be true that when parents prevent their children from viewing “mature” media they are under the belief that they are in effect helping their children grow into better adults but the truth is what they are doing is in effect stunting the full emotional growth of their children. As explained earlier, traits related to sexuality are inherent parts of a person’s normal emotional makeup and as such are a necessary aspect in enabling an individual to grow into an emotionally stable person.

Negative emotional qualities help to balance the positive aspects of an individual’s personality so as to enable them to live a balanced life. By denying children the ability to develop the full gamut of their behaviors from an early stage parents are in effect hindering them from being able to mature at a normal pace which may actually lead to the development of abnormal personalities. This can take the form of dependence, childishness and the inability to take care of oneself without being instructed.

It is based on this that in the case of the early sexualization of children this paper agrees with the assessment that it is up to the parents to properly guide children regarding aspects related to sexuality and sexualization and that it cannot really be stated that it is ever too early to start the building blocks of developing a more well rounded set of behavioral traits within a child and as such this paper suggests that while children are being sexualized at an early age as compared to their counterparts from 30 years ago this may not necessarily be an adverse situation based on the data that has been presented in this study..

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