Recently I came across an album that my grandmother created in 1916. It contains pictures of all the glamorous women she idolized as a teenager. It was fascinating to reach across almost a century of time and see the stars my grandmother tried to mimic as a girl. Their elaborate hairstyles and their restrictive dresses emphasize the distance we women have come in all those years.

And yet, at the same time, peering at that album also underscored just how much my grandmother and my young daughter have in common. Whether a girl was born at the beginning of the last century or at the dawn of this one, cultural role models invariably play a big role in her young life.

Today, of course, what those cultural role models represent is much different than in my grandmother's day. In long-ago eras, role models for girls typically accentuated being demure and proper. Needless to say, that's certainly not the case in the twenty-first century.

In many instances, that's a good thing. Modern girls need to have role models who are independent, creative, and assertive. But as mothers, we need to draw a line when it comes to the sexualization[1] of young girls. In too many instances, the mass media and the mass marketers seem determined to create a pervasive image that even young girls are sexual creatures or should strive to be. That message is wrong, it's offensive, and it is emotionally unhealthy for our daughters.

Any mother who has doubts about the intent of some merchandisers only needs to go into "fashionable" clothing stores for girls. On the racks, customers will invariably see T-shirts with sexual innuendoes printed on them, hot pink push-up bras, low cut jeans, and belly-baring tops— all in sizes for 7 to 10 year olds. And if anyone thinks this marketing strategy doesn't have an effect, they should consider the following: In 2003, "tweens"[2] (that is, girls between the ages of 7 and 12) spent $1.6 million on thong underwear. (It would be interesting to know what the conversations are like in those households where the dad does the laundry and he makes an unwelcome discovery about his daughter's choice of underwear.)

A few years ago, I watched a news story on TV about teens and the sexy clothing available to them. A mother was interviewed in a store as she shopped with her young daughter. The daughter was pressing her to buy a tight, low-cut shirt because many girls at her school were wearing them. The mother refused to buy it because she considered it inappropriate.

The reporter interviewed the daughter separately. The girl said she wanted to buy the shirt because there was so much peer pressure at school and she wanted to fit in. Interestingly though, after further questioning the girl admitted that she was relieved that her mother wouldn't let her buy such clothing because wearing it would make her feel vulnerable. She said it also made her feel better that she could go back and tell her friends that it was her mother's fault that she didn't wear "cool" clothes. That way, she didn't have to explain to her peers her true feelings about the clothing.

You and I need to keep that story in mind the next time we're on a shopping spree with our daughters.

  • [1] The American Psychological Association defines this term as including one or more of the following criteria: a person's value is determined solely by his or her sexual appeal or behavior; a person is held to a standard whereby only physically attractive people are deemed to be worthy sexual beings; a person is viewed only as a "thing" for another's sexual use; and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
  • [2] Refers to adolescents who are no longer considered "children," but who are not yet teenagers.
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