How Do Girls Tell the Difference Between “Little Girl Cute” and “Sexy Cute”?

How do young girls tell the difference between “little girl cute” and “sexy cute”?

They don’t.

Because we continue to blur that line between adult sexuality and childhood. We infantalize grown women and sexualize young girls so that in our culture being a female is a continuum of time, energy, and brain power focused on looking sexy and establishing our worth from our success at that endeavor.

Girls begin to have a difficult time understanding what their girlhood should look like because we continue to allow the sex industry to market itself to children. Pornography has become mainstream, and mainstream includes your grade school girl. From sexualized fashion dolls to suggestive clothing for pre-teen girls to Playboy appearing in the 2011 children’s movie “HOP”, mixing porn and people who still believe in the Tooth Fairy isn’t new.

We sell adult sexuality to kids to the point it is so commonplace many people fail to see it and when it is pointed out, they blanch and make excuses for what is right in front of them.

This pairing of Hello Kitty and Playboy includes toys, child-like notepads, and candy. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

Hello Kitty and Playboy collaborate for French retailer Collette.

Hello Kitty and Playboy collaborate for French retailer Collette.

Our kids do not have the capacity to rationalize these things yet, they just soak in the messages that the strongest social currency a girl can have is to be seen as sexy by the male gaze. Girls very quickly pick up the idea their value will come from being sexy, to the exclusion of any other quality, skill, or positive characteristic they possess.

Boys will learn the message girls are expected to be sexy and will be trained by society to see them as objects rather than agents. Could it be argued this removal of taboo between little girls and adult sexuality allows for a desensitization to take place for men and boys to see young girls as willing sex partners and/or sex objects? We need more research on that, but in the meantime, are you willing to take that gamble with your daughter and her girlhood? Go ahead and Google “Japanese school girl hentai” (NSFW) and let me know what you think as far as the blurring of taboo not being an issue for actual living girls. Just remember, once you see it you can’t unsee it.

Girls will hold themselves to these narrow standards and when they do not measure up many develop emotional damage from a buffet of choices: poor self esteem, negative body image, poor school performance, disordered eating and eating disorders, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity that disregards their personal safety.

One can argue a brand is free to do what it wants with its products. Hello Kitty is brand that aggressively licenses out designs and earns Sanrio $5 billion a year. The brand was originally aimed at pre-adolescent, including school supplies, toys, t-shirts, and jewelry. Children’s television series were created at one time. Introduced in 1974 in Japan (1976 in the US) Hello Kitty quickly became a mainstay in Japanese kawaii pop culture (the love of all thing cute and child-like). In the 1990’s Sanrio recognized a large adult market and capitalized on that with Hello Kitty purses, wine labels, condoms, and vibrators.  One can argue this unholy alliance between Hello Kitty and Playboy is not a big deal because the Collette merchandise isn’t available in the USA. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Playboy make a move on child-friendly products.

The character Hello Kitty is herself a school-aged girl, bright and kind with a twin sister named Mimmy. Playboy does love twins. And now they love little school girls.

Yes, Hello Kitty has adult fans. Almost all children’s media does. Have you seen what they’ve done to My Little Pony recently?

Yes, perhaps the argument could be made that Playboy and Japanese school girl hentai have their places in adult sexuality. 

When the brand makes a point to make the launch party more PG they very well know children are a huge part of their targeted marketing and the end user of a huge majority of their products. But there is money to be made and that is the end all, be all right?

My question is, how valuable do we hold our daughters’ childhoods and their right to not have that precious time confused with adult sexuality and the exploitative nature of pornography?

Hello Kitty, usually a child's playmate is now Playboy's latest Playmate.

Hello Kitty, usually a child’s playmate is now Playboy’s latest Playmate.




When Do We Allow Our Girls To Partake in Commercialized Sexualization?

That is a serious question, when do we or when should we allow it? I hope your head and your heart are saying never, but often times that gate opens before we are ready or give our permission. How do you push back a marketing tidal wave? How do you keep your children from breathing toxic air?

The thing is, none of us are raising our children in a vacuum. They live in our homes and grow within our families, but they are also members of the culture at large and try as I might, I have no control over how other people raise their children or what media they decide to consume. I also don’t walk around protecting their ears or covering their eyes.

Case in point, while dropping my kids off at school today we were walking behind a first grade girl wearing this backpack featuring the Winx Club.

Winx backpack seen at school this morning, on the back of a six year old girl.

Winx backpack seen at school this morning, on the back of a six year old girl.

Why would you send your young child to her place of learning with THAT on her back. What messages does that reinforce? Where are the Amelia Earhart and Maya Angelou backpacks? Why is it okay to sell adult sexuality to kids? If the actual six year old were dressed and posed like that on the internet people would be screaming about child pornography but because it is a cartoon, it is okay for the six year old? Folks, I just don’t get it.

Try this test: If the image can be lifted from the child’s toy/backpack/t-shirt and placed on the billboard for a strip club and not look out of place, then things are seriously fucked.

You have to be blind not to see it.

Given what we know about how early sexualization harms young girls,  I cannot understand how parents allow this kind of imagery and media in their homes. Isn’t their some pause at the store, some alarm bell that sounds internally that says, “Ya know, my daughter is six years old and these characters are oozing adult sexuality. I need to tell her no and that we need to make a different pick.”

The problem is that this isn’t happening frequently enough and marketers then argue back to activists like me that they are just giving the people what they want. I mean, it is selling, right? But when sexualization is the only choice so widely available, how much of a choice do we have and can we be successful avoiding it? How much can parents be to blame? And why is it that many times we have to spend two to three times as much money on healthier options?

Our girls are being turned into mini-adult consumers at a fast and furious pace. Where is the respect for girlhood? Why are we in such a rush to grow these girls up? We’ve been talking about this for so long that I am now the second generation of parent to come behind trailblazers like Jean Kilbourne, Susan Linn, Sharon Lamb, Mary Pipher, Lyn Mikel Brown, Deb Tolman, and Diane Levin. I am continuing to carry the torch because over my dead body will my daughter get this as her definition of girlhood and femininity:

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Things were not this far gone when I was a child. This is why the “But I did ______ and I turned out fine” argument never holds water. Our generation and those younger than us have always been swimming in the waters of objectification and sexualization to the point that they don’t realize when they are soaking wet. (Peggy Orenstein said this to me the other day.)

In fact, this great series of cartoons does an excellent job of pointing out just how much pop culture has changed for our girls, and how raunchy it has become. Please make sure you read the follow up post that goes with it.

So I do everything I can to keep the sexualized garbage away from my kids, but no one can do this with 100% success. And while today it is my almost-eight year old asking me about Monster High, soon it will be the bigger questions that come with raising bigger kids (like the one shared below).

As I parent my kids and respect their right to childhood I will continue to look this slide of sexualized and objectified sludge in the eye, stand toe to toe and say, “Oh HELL no.”

I do not accept this. Not for my kids. And hopefully, not for yours.


PPBB Community Member Question: My daughter is 12 and wanted to watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. I am against most fashion focused things for all the obvious reasons, so my first reaction was no way is she watching that. She mentioned that she’s recording it, so that got me to thinking this could be a great discussion point for dress and media. Can anyone point me in the direction of the Psychologist who spear headed the exposure of all the ugly sides of marketing? Also any thing else that might help me have a good conversation with her.

Models from the Victoria's Secret 2013 fashion show.

Models from the Victoria’s Secret 2013 fashion show.

Melissa’s answer: I think you are smart to turn it into a conversation starter instead of a stopper by saying “no way”. My first reaction would be “no way” as well, but then we need to dig deeper and allow our kids to learn media literacy skills and resiliency to these messages marketed to them.
Ask her why she wants to watch the show and why it is important to her, maybe it is because Taylor Swift is performing. Not by accident, mind you, because VS desperately wants brand loyalty out of Swift’s young fan base.

I would make a deal with her. She can watch the VS show, but only after she watches Miss Representation or Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne (I think this might be the person you were thinking of) with you.
You can find Miss Rep here:
And Killing Us Softly 1-4 here:…

If, at 12yo, she is grown up enough to handle one of those documentaries then she is old enough to handle the VS show. I would tell her that your concern with her watching the VS show is that as she reaches puberty and her body starts to look more womanly you don’t want her growing with the idea that there is only one way that women can be beautiful. The ideal height of a Victoria’s Secret Model is 5’9” standing barefoot with body measurements of 34-24-34.
I would expose the ugly side of what the VS models go through to look that way, despite looking glamorous and sexy for cameras. A good, scary read:

I would Google some of the models names like Jessica Hart or Adriana Lima, then I would Google that name (model + no makeup) to see what they really look like.

Finally, I would review with her the findings of the APA Task Force:

And if, after all this, she still wants to watch the show I’d let her. I guarantee you she’ll no longer enjoy it because you’ll have shifted the way she sees those things forever.







Two Worlds of Doll Shopping

I had an interesting experience this weekend while I shopped for the 18 inch doll that the OPP wants for Christmas. First, the obvious stuff like there were no boy dolls, most everything was pink and in the designated ‘girl’ aisles, and at one store all of the dolls were blonde haired and blue-eyed. I was looking for a doll with olive skin, black hair and brown eyes to look like the OPP who looks like her partial Lebanese heritage. The OPP has outgrown her handmade dolls, and wants one of these “big girl” dolls very badly.

But what really struck me was the feeling I got as I looked at the dolls (similar to American Girl except in price), with sweet makeup-free faces and cute, age-appropriate clothing and great story lines behind them. I felt nostalgic for my baby dolls from when I was a girl, and all of the adventures I took them on like 1840’s frontier school house or rescuing them from a sinking cruise ship and living on a deserted island. The doll I was looking at for the OPP just felt like a perfect fit for my almost-seven-year-old and seemed like she would become a great pal for the OPP during her girlhood.

And then I turned the corner to the dolls that don’t look like little girls. The dolls with impossibly thin bodies and giant heads and breasts, dressed in skimpy clothing and heavy make up and sexually fetishized footwear, and I sucked my breath in. I saw a little girl, maybe eight or nine, dressed like a small woman in a tight shirt and short skirt and heeled shoes, drooling over these dolls. Toys are media, and media is a diet. I wondered what this little girl had been taking in, silently hoping not all of it was toxic. I hoped she was getting messages or was involved in activities that counteracted the awfulness comprised in these sexualized dolls. One doll and one outfit certainly doesn’t make nor undo a girl, but a girlhood full of those messages is harmful.

Those are not messages that I accept for my child.

It disturbs me when parents opt into this problem by purchasing the toys and clothing that carry those harmful messages. Sexualization is a pestilent beast.

I looked down at the doll I was about to purchase, and the little travel suitcase and passport accessory, and was content knowing that this doll, the story that came with her (an animal and marine lover who wants to travel to South Africa), and the way she looked represented the messages I want my little girl growing up with and internalizing.

The day may come when Amelia wants to wear revealing clothing and chase romantic interests or go out partying. I did when I was a young adult in college. But not when I was almost-seven-years-old.

I want my little girl to be six going on seven. I don’t need her rushing into young adulthood, and all the pitfalls it can bring if you aren’t ready for it and don’t have a sense of who you are.

Six going on seven. The rest will come, or not, in time. But it is these days of her girlhood I find so precious in this space, in this time.


The Journey Girl I purchased for Amelia, the 6yo OPP.

The Monster High doll the 8yo girl in the aisle with me was looking at.

Conversations About Short Dresses and Bras For Bitty Boobies

These two conversations took place between me and the six year old Original Pigtail Pal this past week.

“Well, I just don’t know about that. That’s a real short dress. Mom, I think she’s just trying to be fancy grown up, but you can almost see her vagina!” -6yo Original Pigtail Pal, upon seeing some high school girls dressed up for homecoming in some VERY short dresses.
“Um, yeah. Those dresses are really, really short. I think they would be very hard to dance in. I would be worried my bottom would show.” -Me
“Yeah, totally. Or your gina could just pop right out. I sure hope she doesn’t sneeze or bend down to pet a puppy.” -OPP


I will always help her try to make sense of our sexed-up culture as it plays out in front of us. The truth is there are thousands of media messages and marketers waiting and wanting her to adopt, consume, and become a participant in the practice of sexually objectifying herself, and that is something I will continue to fight because my daughter has worth far beyond the sex she has to offer. I want her to come into her sexuality on her own terms, not someone else’s. And when she is a teen and wants to experiment with sexiness and being adult, I want her to understand that has very little to do with putting the private parts of her body out for public viewing.


“Mom, can I wear your bras?” -6yo Original Pigtail Pal Amelia
“You don’t have breasts, Smalls. Why would you need a bra?” -Me
“Just for fancy dress up. Can I wear it for pretend?” -OPP
“You can pretend to wear it.” -Me
“C’mooooooon. Can I get my own bras then?” -OPP
“I will get you a bra when you start to develop breasts.” -Me
“Can I get one tomorrow?” -OPP
“If you develop breasts overnight tonight, yes. Otherwise, no, that is something you can wait for until you are a bigger girl.” -Me
“How come you always say no to stuff?” -OPP
“I’m not saying “No”. I’m saying “I love you” in a way you’ll understand years later.” -Me


When little girls want to wear their mama’s heels, bras, jewelry, or makeup during dress up and pretend, I think it is a fun and safe way for them to be temporary visitors in the Land of Grown Up, and experiment and role play in a safe environment. I object to adult things being shrunk down and marketed to little girls, forever blurring the line between a girlhood of play, and a woman’s world of beauty and sexiness. Pretending to be adult during imaginary play is quite normal….having adult items meant to make a grown woman more sexually attractive turned child-sized = not normal. Or developmentally healthy.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

Hey Mattel,

I am giddy. For three years I have been explaining to my little girl why your product lines Barbie and Monster High are not welcome in our house. I have dissected time and again the negative messages your “toys” give to little girls and their body image, sense of self worth, and developing sexuality. Quite a tap dance, I assure you, as my daughter is only six and the words I need to use to adequately describe your astoundingly sexualized dolls are not appropriate to say to her. Little ironic, don’t you think?

For over a year my little girl has been intrigued with Monster High and perks up at your commercials, or lingers near the boxes on the shelf when we’re shopping. She’ll ask for one, her four year old brother tells her they are “infropropee-it” (inappropriate) and off we go, leaving your craptastic dolls on the shelf.  Over and over and over again I would explain to her in an age appropriate manner, why your dolls are too sexualized for a little girl to be playing with, and how they diminish the values deep inside of her that she needs to stay strong and that I will fiercely protect. Over and over in my head I would be steaming mad at your 12 inch tall undead hooker dolls and thinking  “Mother bumping Monster High” to myself while I calmly and sweetly encouraged critical thinking and media literacy skills in my daughter. Over and over and over again.

People told me to just get over it, the dolls “aren’t so bad”, and to just accept them use them as teachable moments. Bullshit, I say.

These dolls are toxic. I know far too much about sexualization and its heinous impact on children, abysmal body image in girls of all ages, and the development of self esteem and healthy sexuality to relent. To be fair, you aren’t the only one adding to the sexualized cesspool that girlhood has become on the marketplace. But you certainly are one of the front runners and I guess the profit margin you have on these dolls helps you sleep at night. For goodness sake, you sexed up Merida. Seriously?

Listen up — You don’t get her. You don’t get my daughter. You’ll have to meet your bottom line and drive up your quarterly profits on the heart and soul of some other poor little girl, because you don’t get my girl.

See, two weeks ago she was lobbying big time for Monster High again, and wanting to wear make up out of the house. For the 6,429th time we discussed that she is a little girl, Monster High sends inappropriate and hurtful messages to little girls’ minds and hearts, and that when she is a teenager she can wear make up but not when she is six. Then she asked if Monster High dolls look like girls who smoke cigarettes. She is on an anti-smoking crusade this summer, and out of complete exasperation, I answered yes, Monster High dolls look like some girls who smoke.

My child recoiled in horror. She was shocked and offended. It was comical, and I felt a little bit like I was playing dirty, and then I remembered I was discussing with her plastic dolls dressed like tiny cheap sex workers that you somehow think are appropriate to suavely market and sell to children. We’re dirty six ways from Sunday on this one, so yeah, Monster High dolls now smoke.

The next day we were having ice cream with friends, and when my daughter heard me whisper something to one of the other moms, she asked if we were talking about something inappropriate. My friend asked my daughter what “inappropriate” meant, and my six year old clearly and eloquently said it is when something isn’t right or unsuitable. And then she used Monster High as her example, stating that they dress too grown up for children, the dolls are mean to each other, and wear too much make up and clothes that suggest the only thing they find important is what people think of how they look.

I was surprised and proud to hear her repeat back everything I’ve been saying about the awfulness of Monster High. I later asked her about what she said and she told me that knowing the Monster High girls smoke made her look at them differently, and suddenly they weren’t cool to her anymore. She said she understood the things I was talking about and she thought the dolls looked nasty.

Yesterday we had a colleague over for lunch, and when she and I were discussing sexualization, Amelia piped up and said the exact same things again about Monster High, adding in that the dolls dress in a way that is “too skimpy that makes boys want to kiss them but not be friends with them or see them as a whole person.”

The day we were eating ice cream wasn’t a fluke or rote repetition. My daughter gets it now. I refused to give in to the peer pressure and the cultural pressure, and I have a six year old who sees Monster High for what it is: sexualized garbage. She loves her monsters and walking through graveyards and creepy stuff, but we’ll stick to Tim Burton and Scooby Doo. She wants nothing to do with you and your trashy dolls.

I won this round. You don’t get her. You don’t get my daughter.



Amelia at the Milwaukee Public Museum, on a trip to look at skeletons and "disgusting things".

Update 8/23/12: At this time, Comments are now closed to the post. This blog is for parents and concerned adults looking to fight the sexualized messages in the media and being sold to our girls. This post was meant to show one of many discussions I have had with my little girl about why Monster High is completely inappropriate for her, at six years old. This is also a blog that requires reading comprehension, and I sit here at my desk chuckling over the people losing their minds because I confirmed to my little girl that the Monster High dolls do look like the teenagers we saw smoking earlier that week when we were leaving the library. I fail to see the cause for attack over my daughter’s expression of her powers of comparison.