Little girls or little women? The Disney princess effect
In today's highly sexualized environment – where 5-year-olds wear padded bras – some see the toddlers-and-tiaras Disney princess craze leading to the pre-teen pursuit of "hot" looks. Do little girls become little women too soon?
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Schools can also share the burden. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a therapist and educational consultant, has worked with school systems across the country for 30 years to develop curriculum that will increase social and emotional intelligence among boys and girls. She says that programs where girls are encouraged to create and then delve into their own projects are often successful.Skip to next paragraph
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"Girls discover what it means to take their own interests seriously and to pursue them deeply and vigorously," she says.
She says that schools that can start focusing on these issues earliest have the best success. In a four-year study published in 2007 by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, researchers found that students who participate in these sorts of programs show more empathy, self-confidence, and more academic success than their peers without social-emotional curriculum.
"Given today's culture and the access people have and the lack of boundaries between home and school and between people and technology, you have to begin this work in first grade," she says. "The schools that are doing it in first grade are very different cultures – they're kinder, they're more respectful, they're less bullying."
Girls stuck in the social-feedback loop
Ms. Steiner-Adair's point about technology is the elephant in the chat room.
In any conversation about the sexualization of girls, the Internet is always mentioned as a huge new challenge. Not only does the Web allow easy – and often unwanted – access to sexual images (in terms of numbers of websites and views, porn is king of the Web), it offers a social-feedback loop that is heavy on appearance and superficiality, and low on values that scholars say might undermine sexualization, such as intelligence and compassion.
Girls – and boys – encourage each other to embrace sexualization. Teens who post sexy pictures of themselves on Facebook, for instance, are rewarded with encouraging comments. Educator and author Rachel Simmons, who recently rereleased "Odd Girl Out," her book about girl aggression, with new chapters on the Internet, tells of a 13-year-old who posted a photo of herself in tight leggings, her behind lifted toward the camera.
"She posts it on Facebook and gets 10 comments underneath it telling her how great her butt looks," Ms. Simmons says.
"Girls are using social media to get feedback in areas that they've been told by the culture that they need to express or work on. That's not girls being stupid.... Many girls post or send provocative images because they're growing up in a culture that places a lot of value in their sexuality."
The answer is not for parents to cancel the Wi-Fi, Simmons and others say. There are many ways that girls can use the Internet and social media for good. But the technology does require monitoring – and self-evaluation.
It's hard to criticize a girl for delving into social media, for instance, when her parents are constantly checking their own iPhones.
"We can't sit there and say, 'Oh, the kids are so messed up,' " she says. "We have to look at ourselves."