Sexualizing Young Girls Is Nothing to Cheer About

Last week’s MSNBC news story about the Michigan six-year-old booted off the cheerleading squad after her mom objected to a risque routine got me thinking. This has been a strange season for news stories concerning the sexualization of young girls. Back in April, the UK’s Primark department store was taken to task for selling padded bikini tops for toddlers; in August, The Wall Street Journal reported on the appearance Baby Gap “skinny jeans” for, well, babies. I find this all a little disturbing because, as the WSJ article pointed out, parents dressing their children in these clothes have a “mini-me mentality.” They seem to forget children aren’t just miniature adults. I think that might be what prompted little Kennedy Tesch’s mom to speak out.

As a former cheerleader and cheerleading coach, Jennifer Tesch is familiar with the sport. However, when her six-year-old came home spouting, “Our backs ache, our skirts are too tight, we shake our booties from left to right!” Jennifer said she “was in shock” and didn’t feel the cheer was appropriate for such young girls. Appearing on the Today Show, Tesch explained that she voiced her concerns first to the team manager and then all the way up to the team’s governing board. Ultimately, she was told Kennedy could sit out the cheer, but was also told she and her husband Duane were “perverse” for seeing anything wrong with it. Tesch said then she “got mad” and took her story to the local media.

At this point the issue becomes less about Kennedy and more about the reactions of the so-called “grownups” involved, because as soon as the media was involved the entire situation resorted to name-calling and rendering judgments on whose values were going to prevail. In the end, Kennedy was kicked off the squad, while the other girls are, presumably, still doing their booty-based cheer. I’m left wondering how some adults can see this as “just fun and games” and others recognize it as symptomatic of the sexualization of young girls in our society.

We live in a media-saturated society, one in which images of ever-younger girls as sexual beings is pervasive–so common that some people don’t recognize them anymore. But there are parents who do see what is going on, and they try to protect their children when they can. Even the most well-meaning parents can’t always prevent their children from seeing those images; what they can do is refrain from reinforcing them. Maybe that is what Jennifer Tesch was trying to do. She decided to take a stand against one more intrusion into her daughter’s childhood.

Other parents weren’t convinced. Obviously the coach, who said the cheer had been around “for 20 years,” felt differently. But certainly no six-year-old would come up with a cheer like that on her own. And it’s when adults impose their own sexuality on children that things start to get problematic.

According to the Report of the American Psychological Association Task force on the Sexualization of Young Girls, “when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them.” Popping your toddler into adult-styled clothing or teaching a six-year-old to shake her booty may be amusing, but it is also an imposition of adult sexuality.

I am not suggesting that children aren’t sexual beings, and I’ve recently encouraged offering sexual education at much earlier ages, but that is far different than imposing adult sexuality. As M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, pointed out in a 2008 Salon interview, there are some things associated with the act of sex itself, or with sex work, and those things aren’t appropriate for children. Most people were outraged when UK retailer Tesco began selling a toy pole-dancing kit. Is that much different than putting your child in fishnet stockings and stilettos and sending her out on Halloween, or suggesting she stand in front of bleachers full of adults and do a bump-and-grind in a short skirt?

Doing research on the lives of young girls and the ways in which the media impacts them makes me hyper-aware of how these incidents demonstrate the increasing pressure on younger and younger girls to become too sexual too soon. Each incident may seem insignificant, but added together they can result in the outcomes noted in the APA report:

Sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and attitudes and beliefs.

Little girls like Kennedy need more advocates like her mom to help them grow up knowing they are more than the sum of their body parts. That would be something we could all cheer for.

Photo from Flickr user jimmymacdonald, under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. One positive step to take is to get Congress to support and pass the Healthy Media Images for Girls (HR 4925) promoted by Girl Scouts of the USA.
    Nearly 90% of girls say the media places a lot of pressure on teenage girls to be thin. Only 46% of girls think that the fashion industry does a good job of representing people of all races and ethnicities (Girls & Body Image, 2010). Read more here: http://girlscouts4girls.org/girlscouts/issues/ale

  2. As the mom of a 4 year old girl, I really appreciate this article. I feel that I am constantly battling against our cultural desire to sexualize young girls. Many stores carry "low-rise" pants for girls as young as 18 months. Seriously?? You're going to try to sexualize a little girl who's still in DIAPERS? But they do. And my husband's whole extended family has the idea that dressing little girls up in scaled down versions of big girls' or adult women's clothes is "cute". So are Bratz dolls and their ilk. I think it's caused some bad feelings when I've refused to let her wear or play with some of the things they've bought her, but so be it. Kudos to Ms. Tesch for taking a stand for her daughter.

    • Those brads are ridiculous. It’s good to hear that someone still thinks so. Good job, keep taking a stand. Its your family now.

  3. I followed the Tesch story on the news and I was appalled. Instead of reviewing the cheer and its suggestiveness, they threw the little girl out of the league.

  4. I've written articles about this very same issue on my own blog. I'm a father of an awesome 14 year old girl and trying to encourage other men to stand up for issues like this and protect their daughters' right to be a little girl and not a "grown up" at 8.

    The first part of that equation is education. People need a reality check sometimes to awaken them from a media saturated stupor, but once aware we have to move them to action. First in their own homes by not allowing young girls to leave the home for school dressed like their favorite celeb starlet and second by speaking out to other parents and calling attention to the issue.

    Thank you for this article! With many voices bringing attention to this issue, hopefully we'll bring a greater awareness.

  5. This is just so 18th century, where children were dressed up as little grown-ups complete with wig and beauty spot. Why are we, as a society, are regressing to such a great extent? Whatever happened to the good old dungarees? A t-shirt?

  6. This issue is not new; my husband and I were fighting this when our daughters, now 26 and 24, were in middle school. TV shows, commercials, Brittany Spears, Victoria's Secret "Pink" logo…it goes on and on. There were other parents who didn't see things the way we did, and probably thought we were "perverse" also. We didn't care what they thought; we cared about our daughters. The parents of these very young girls aren't seeing it because they grew up with the aforementioned, and their parents looked the other way or were overwhelmed.

    • sarah hnarakis says:

      hello, my name is sarah hnarakis. i am currently in year 11 at Marryatville high School, Adelaide, Australia. as part of my research project for school we have to pick a topic of interest and have a question. my question is "is the media responisble for the sexualization of young girls?" i saw your comment on this website and i was just wondering if you could get back to me and tell me your thoughts and feelings on the topic and prove that this question is true, this will really help me with my research assignment.
      hope to hear back from you
      regards sarah
      you can aslo email me at : sarah.hnarakis@optusnet.com.au

  7. ConcernedAmerican says:

    Is this not just a furthering of a trend that has been in place for decades in this country? We have for years encouraged young teens to date, willingly allowing them to place themselves in adult situations long before they are prepared to deal with them, and then we act shocked at the natural consequences of our own stupidity. This is just one more of those consequences.

  8. I work as a tech in a theater. We have dance season. Some moves these young kids are taught along with the costumes put in, blows my mind. I could never imagine rouging up my child and letting her dance as dirty as some of these parents do. A mother stuffing a 4 year olds mermaide top…It does blow my mind. Why it's so sexual. When I was in High School and was a cheerleader I always asked for an extra inch for the growing. I never got. My senior year I couldn't sit without my skirt exposing my butt. Yet I was yelled in the hall for having my cheer jacket around my waist because it was out of uniform. It's sad, when young kids are being told they should tan and wear more make-up. I was lucky to have such a strong background of support and family or I would have had a low self esteem. This was a coach telling me this. Or when out of uniform I should wear tighter clothes. It's sad. I'm very happy for my family. I hope we can get out of this. It's sad when 14 year olds look 18 and are being looked at by other guys. I do employ the however I dress where ever I go, but at some ages. There should be a little control.

    • Carmen Siering says:

      Vekara, your story is the kind that encourages me to write about this issue. It's great that you have come out the other side and have a good self-image. I agree that we should all be able to wear whatever we want, wherever we want to be, but, like you, when little girls aren't dressing themselves, then the responsible adult has to make the wise choice. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  9. I agree that this is disgusting. Children should be allowed to enjoy their inncocence as long as possible. Kids should just be kids!!

    But I have to admit, I was also wondering at what age do you draw the line and decide it’s ok for someone to begin being sexual (i.e. dressing in tighter clothes, etc.)? I’m sure this is definitely not a one-size-fits all answer, as everyone matures at different rates. But where do you draw the line between a 12 year old who is making the choice (cause I really don’t think a 6 year old is making a choice on their own), and a 25 year old woman who’s making the choice? What are people’s thoughts on this?? There seems to be a bit of grey area once you reach the point where the girls are a bit older and begin to think for themselves – however young or old that may be.

    Granted, a 12 year old may *think* she’s thinking for herself when she might actually jsut be giving in to media influience and peer pressure…but an adult runs this risk too.

    Just some food for thought…

  10. The trouble isn't just with cheerleading. My nieces are on a high school dance team program that basically works with kids from kindergarten age on. They go to other cities to compete, which makes me wonder if the competition aspect isn't what is driving the push for routines that are further and further beyond the limits of what young girls should be doing–not to mention wearing–on a public stage. Some of the routines I've seen have made me squirm, but then I see the parents cheering and clapping, which makes wonder why they aren't squirming, too. Maybe I'm not such a prude after all.

  11. I'm in my 30's and in middle school there were the same dance routines that today would make parents squirm. I know I was uncomfortable watching at forced prep rallies when girls would lay partially on the ground and simulate sex! I think, as a woman who grew up in the 80's, this hyper-sexual inference began decades ago and yes, parents should be very afraid. Any one ever hear of pedophiles? I was so uncomfortable with what society was telling me to be when I was too young to be it, I was firmly in my late 20's before I could even wear cloths that weren't baggie. I was so terrified some one would want to do something bad to me if I looked "sexy". I am just to the point that I am proud of my body, ( I have always been thin, not even curvy) and finally have a healthy view of sex and sexuality. I just wish every girl had a mom so involved and aware as Ms. Tesch. Whether a girl becomes hyper-sexual or asexual really hinges on what involvement the parents take.

  12. I definitely agree with what you're saying here. Kids today, particularly young girls, are growing up way too fast. I think the coaches and parents both need to be reminded what the focus is – the kids. For some reason, however, sex and 'adult themes' now plague every element of children's lives, including their sports activities.

    Beyond that, nothing short of a complete and total boycott by both parents and coaches alike is the only way to communicate a lack of interest in having children exploited and depicted as 'sex items'.

  13. clayboggess says:

    "Harris says the cheer is a crowd pleaser and says making anything more out of the cheer is outrageous." Come on! Everyone with a brain and hormones knows that it has underlying connotations. Standards have changed over time to the point that we just accept it as the norm. I admire the girl for standing up for her beliefs and being willing to accept the consequences.

    Clay Boggess http://www.BigEventFundraising.com

  14. this is insaine. she is just a baby. I'm 16 with a 6 year old brother and a 12 year old sister, and neither of us behave this way or are tought to behave this way, yet we see it all the time.

  15. Its stupid that the mom thought the cheer was sexually innappropriate. The cheer was “My back aches, my skirts too tight, my hips shake from left to right…” Its not meant to be sexual. Its meant to say my back hurts from all the cheerleading, and my skirs too tight. Its her fault shes dirty minded, not the coaches fault. I’m 17 and have a 3 year old daughter. We are both cheerleaders. I used to do that cheer when I was her age, and I have no problem with her doing it. Because I’m not dirty minded like that.

    • So u had a kid at 14 and u participated in similar routines.. and u think these provocative routines do nothing 5o sexualize young girls… I digress

  16. Duncan Faber says:

    Why are we, as a society, in such a hurry to have our children grow up so fast? There’s plenty of time for them to be adults! There are many sites that sell age appropriate clothing for girls. This is one of our favorites. Cheers. http://www.twirlygirlshop.com/girls-maxi-dress

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