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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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"There are so many images of girls, and they are always objectifying – it's hard to make that go away," Maya says. "What you really need is for the girls to be able to see it."

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She knows this firsthand. Her mother would regularly pause television shows or movies to talk about female stereotypes; when she read to Maya, she would often change the plotlines to make the female characters more important. (It was only when Maya got older that she realized that Harry Potter was far more active than Hermione.)

"It would get kind of annoying," Maya, now 16, says with a laugh. "When we were watching a movie and she'd pause it and say, 'You know, this isn't a good representation,' I'd be like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, I caught that. Can we watch our show now?' "

Professor Brown had many opportunities to intervene. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the percentage of television shows with sexual content – from characters talking about their sexual exploits to actual intercourse – increased from 54 percent in 1998 to 70 percent in 2005.

In her book, Levin says that the numbers would be even higher if advertisements were included. And reality television, which has ballooned during the past decade, is particularly sexualizing. Scholars point out that the most popular reality shows either have harem-style plots, with many women competing to please one man, or physical-improvement goals.

Young girls get similarly sexualizing messages in their own movies and television shows. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media found recently that fewer than 1 in 3 speaking characters (animal or human) in G-rated family films are female, and even animated female characters tend to wear sexualized attire: Disney's Jasmine, for instance, has a sultry off-the-shoulder look, while even Miss Piggy shows cleavage.

Co-opting the images

Given this backdrop, many child development experts say the best way to handle the media onslaught for younger girls is for parents to simply opt out.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time – television, movies, and Internet – for infants under 2 years of age; for older children, the AAP suggests only one to two hours a day. This would be a significant change for most American families. In 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 36 percent of children under 6 live in a house where the TV is on all or almost all of the time; 43 percent of children ages 4 to 6 have a TV in their bedroom. In 2010 the foundation reported that, on average, children ages 8 to 18 consume 10 hours, 45 minutes' worth of screen media content a day.

Even if parents limited TV and movies, though, the sexualization of women would still get through on the radio, in magazines at grocery store checkout lines, on billboards, and in schools, not to mention on the all-powerful Internet. Those images, as in television, have become far more sexualized.

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