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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"Parents are having a really hard time dealing with it," says Diane Levin, an early childhood specialist at Wheelock College in Boston who recently co-wrote the book "So Sexy So Soon." "They say that things they used to do aren't working; they say they're losing control of what happens to their girls at younger and younger ages."Skip to next paragraph
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It only takes a glance at some recent studies to understand why parents are uneasy:
•A University of Central Florida poll found that 50 percent of 3-to-6-year-old girls worry that they are fat.
•The marketing group NPD Fashionworld reported in 2003 that more than $1.6 million is spent annually on thong underwear for 7-to-12-year-olds.
•Children often come across Internet pornography unintentionally: University of New Hampshire researchers found in 2005 that one-third of Internet users ages 10 to 17 were exposed to unwanted sexual material, and a London School of Economics study in 2004 found that 60 percent of children who use the Internet regularly come into contact with pornography.
And on, and on. It's enough, really, to alarm the most relaxed parent.
But as Professor Levin, Finucane, and Orenstein show, there is another trend today, too – one that gets far less press, but is much more hopeful.
Trying to make a safer, healthier environment for girls, an ever-stronger group of educators, parents, institutions, and girls themselves are pushing back against growing marketing pressure, new cyberchallenges, and sexualization, which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines in part as the inappropriate imposition of sexuality on children.
Many are trying to intervene when girls are younger, like Finucane, who doesn't advocate banning the princesses but taking on the ways that they narrow girls' play (advocating more color choices, suggesting alternative story plotlines). Some tap into the insight and abilities of older girls – with mentoring, for example. Still others take their concerns into the public sphere, lobbying politicians and executives for systemic change such as restricting sexualized advertising targeting girls.
Together, they offer some insights for how, as Finucane says, to bring sexy back for a refund.
Soccer heading makes a bad hair day
The first step, some say, is to understand why any of this matters.
By many measures, girls are not doing badly. According to the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, high school girls perform as well as boys on math and science tests and do better than their male peers in reading. Three women now graduate from college for every 2 men. Far more women play sports, which is linked to better body image, lower teen pregnancy rates, and higher scholastic performance.