What Choice Do I Have In Explaining ‘Sexy’ To My Little Girl?

In a hyper-sexual culture that markets sex directly to young children, parents are forced to explain adult concepts at ages we never dreamed of. When I first became a parent I never dreamed I’d be having conversations about sexiness with my 8yo almost-third grader. But I am, because I’d rather she get our family’s definition than that of the marketers.

The most popular fashion dolls in 2014, marketed directly to young girls.

The most popular fashion dolls in 2014, marketed directly to young girls.

Blog Comment (Judgement) left by Helga P: “8-year-old going on 25. Third grade teacher is going to have loads of fun redirecting conversations with this girl withal all her talk of sexiness.”

PPBB Response: “Helga – No, actually my daughter is 8 going on 9. I’ve been forced to explain topics to her I didn’t think we’d approach until middle school, but our hyper-sexualized culture made it impossible to ignore or hide from. She is a very intelligent child who asks insightful questions so I felt it was best to answer them with the information she was looking for. Most kindergartners these days know the word “sexy”, I am a parent who decided to inform my child what it actually means so that I can teach her that “sexy” isn’t for kids, despite it being constantly marketed to them.

I cannot raise my daughter in a bubble, but I can make sure she is brought up to think critically about media, to have a strong body image, and to receive an education about sex and sexuality that is both sex positive and age appropriate.”


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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: http://film.missrepresentation.org/watch-film
And Killing Us Softly 1-4 here: https://www.youtube.com/results…

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: http://www.stylelist.com/read/the-honest-often-ugly-truth-about-teenage-modeling/

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: http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx

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.







Amelia Gets Sexy

The photo I asked the PPBB Community to caption.

During our caption contest for the photo at your left there were a couple of comments about kids not noticing this kind of thing / don’t make a big deal if they don’t / don’t shelter your kids just talk to them / and one about packing up the kids to play at the park instead because they shouldn’t be at the mall anyway.  (Yes, you could have played along on our Bingo card and won several times over.

I don’t think removing children from public spaces meant for all ages is the answer. The existence of children is not the problem. The acceptance of sexualization of the female form as our status quo is the problem.

My kids and I had no choice but to walk past this on the way to the specialty store we needed to buy a gift at. I very rarely go to our mall, so I had no idea this display was waiting for us. Because of the way the window sits in the wall, from the direction we were walking a shopper cannot see the images until you are in front of them. And then you are in front of 8 feet tall porny banners for poorly made lingerie and sex toys. With your seven and four year old. You are fooling yourself if you think kids don’t notice these kinds of things. Eyes wide shut.

My seven year old daughter did notice the banners. And she did comment. And I did talk to her.

“Oh, those girls are pretty. I really like them.” -7yo Original Pigtail Pal Amelia

“What do you like about them?” -Me

“Oh, they are so pretty. Like Barbie.” -OPP

“I think you are pretty and I think I am pretty. I think these women are showing a different look. Why do you think they are dressed like that?” -Me

“Well, that is their fancy underwear and the man is trying to see their boobs.” -OPP  (See photo below)

“Remember the other night when you asked me what ‘sexy’ meant? These girls are dressed in a way that many people view as ‘sexy’. The underwear is called lingerie, it is only for grown ups. Their hair and makeup and poses, it is all meant to be sexy. They want the man to be looking at their breasts.” -Me

“Oh my god. I had no idea that is what it….Mom? Am I in trouble for looking at it?” -OPP

“No, you are not in trouble. There is no way for us to not look at it right now. But I want you to see the difference between being a beautiful, strong little girl in your own heart, and being a sexy grown up who wants men to look at your body. Being sexy is not for kids.” -Me

“Yeah. That isn’t appropriate for kids’ private parts.” -OPP

We walked into the store we needed to go to, ironically the University Bookstore right next door, and on our way out, Amelia said, “Mom, you should take a picture of me in the car like Ben because then people can see that I am a kid and that sexy ladies are for sexy ladies.”

So here you go. The photo of Benny (above) was taken in the moment, to show the juxtaposition of the children’s play space being invaded by sexualization. The photo of Amelia is staged, at her request, so that you can see that, in her words, “Sexy ladies are for sexy ladies, and not for kids.”

Amelia gets "sexy", and wanted to show you why it isn't for kids. C'mon People!

My first grader learned two new words at school this week, neither of which I am happy about. “Sexy” was one of them. The other was “asshole”. I always say that if the child is able to ask the question, she is ready for the answer. I don’t believe in sheltering my children, but I do believe in respecting their childhood. Our children have a natural born right to a childhood. I didn’t want to be explaining these concepts to her at seven years old. I am pissed that I have to.

Yet, I do have to. Or at least, begin to. This will be just one of many conversations about this topic as she matures. This wasn’t a commercial that I could turn off or something that I could have avoided. As is the case with so much marketing, there are very few ways to escape it. That is WHY they call it marketing.

Because I respect Amelia’s right to a childhood and her right to develop a healthy sexuality and sense of self-worth, she is now starting to understand “sexy”. I explained it to her in as best an age appropriate way as I could manage. I think she is getting, in a small way, what “sexy” might mean. The concept of “sexy’ isn’t a bad thing when introduced at an age appropriate time, and allowed to be explored when the person is ready. But I do have to say, the people who force this on kids and families really are assholes.


I’m really glad she didn’t notice or didn’t ask about the whip and tie. I can handle talking about a lot of things with my kids. BDSM less than ten feet from the kiddies rides is not one of those things.


Web shot of Spencer's window advert for their lingerie sale.

Window display at Spencer's, looking directly out onto the mall walkway and directly across from children's play area.















Here were my favorite captions :

Caroline Burkhart Askew: “Hop in, Mom! We’ve got to get away from this blatant display of sexism speedy quick!”

Theresa Costello: “Yellow Sports Car Ride: 25 cents. Soft Core Porn in the store window: Free. Your son leanring he has to pay more for a fake car ride then a woman’s dignity? Priceless.”

Daniel Singha:l “Mom, you can’t park in the red light district, lemme move the car.”

Christine Harris” “Bemused preschooler flees porntastic midwest mall in speedster hotwired by older sibling. News at 11.”

On Being Six In A Sea of Sexy Dolls

Many times when I’m sharing discussions I have with 6yo Amelia as she and I work through our hyper-sexual culture, I tend to get a comment or two about she or I being judgmental towards other females. While I do very much think that is a valid concern, that is not what I am teaching my daughter.

I want to make very clear this is not about judging others, but rather this is about  interpreting and thinking critically about cultural messages to determine if they align with our family’s values. The focus is on us and our family, not the outside source. I ask her questions about how she would feel, how would she react if ______, what reaction would Dad and I have,  and what consequences might occur (being cold, being sent home from school for dressing inappropriately, not being dressed appropriately for the kind of event, etc).

I ask her to constantly challenge the body image, sexualization, and sexism she sees in the media. I do the same when we encounter racism, as those things simply do not align with how our family practices respect towards other people and ourselves.

I am walking a fine line of being sex positive while teaching Amelia to be empowered and respectful of herself and others. At the same time I am not teaching patriarchal ideas like modesty or slut shaming. We’re working on building a “personal brand” for her, so that she has a rock solid understanding of who she is and what decisions help reinforce or weaken that faith in herself. I’m teaching her that private parts stay private, and that putting them on display for public viewing is not empowerment. Later on down the road we’ll talk about attracting boys (or girls) with personality, friendship, and humor…..not shoving her boobs up to her chin and objectifying herself through actions and clothing. I think she is starting to view Barbie (some of them) and other dolls as sexually objectified (without having that vocabulary). Just like Santa Claus, that is a revelation I want her to come to on her own.

In the past two weeks in particular I can see her really sorting it out (thank you, NFL cheerleaders, for sparking that discussion). At the same time, I don’t want to introduce my six year old to the concept of “sexiness”, nor do I want to issue a blanket statement like “Those dolls are too sexy for you.” Whose idea of sexy? Not hers, I hope. I want Amelia to have the space to develop her OWN ideas and feelings about what that means, in her OWN time. That is was PPBB is all about.

Being sexy – feeling sexy – is great, and even super great when you are the right age for it and when it is defined on your own terms. Having “sexy” be a personality description as a young girl = not great. My daughter, whether she be six or sixteen or twenty six, is more than a collection of sexual body parts. Using sex appeal (or actual sex) as your calling card leaves a lot to be desired, and frankly, sells a girl or woman short of the whole person she could be, and be seen as.