Lolita at 5?

From Bratz webcams to skinny jeans, adults must be alert to sexed-up images targeted at very young girls, educators warn

Globe and Mail
June 9, 2021
By Zosia Bielski

They troll gossip blogs, pore over Miley Cyrus videos and eyeball toy store shelves. They're not preteens, but a crew of early childhood educators on a mission: to show parents and teachers what their five- to 11-year-old charges are ingesting.

The educators from the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education are meeting with teachers across North America to drive home the message that consumerist culture is sexualizing girls, and early onset puberty is worsening the problem.

The educators want to deepen elementary school teachers' understanding of media. They will present their research, entitled the Pink Project, at a U.S. National Association for the Education of Young Children gathering in Charlotte, N.C., next week.

Early childhood education specialist Kimberly Bezaire spoke to The Globe and Mail.

Why are you looking at girls aged 5 to 11 specifically?

There's so much research on teens and that three- to five-year-old range, but so little from 5 to 11. Biology and branding are really changing the ways these girls are growing up today.

What do you mean by biology changing?

Accelerated puberty - early onset puberty. It's commonplace now for a certain percentage of girls to be having their period when they're 8. We still haven't gotten a clear answer on that one. Body mass index is one of the speculations, and also environmental conditions. Then it's coupled with acceleration in social maturity and high achievement pressures. Girls excel but it's a double-edged sword: Along with that comes an obsessive perfectionism.

You look at digital characters. What do you mean by that?

Miley Cyrus, the G-rated [actress] on Nickelodeon who seems so wholesome - she doesn't stand alone: There's Hannah Montana, clothing, products, YouTube videos, her Vanity Fair photo, her fashion photos in all the tabloid magazines, and there's 24/7 access to those things. [Colleague] Shelley Murphy wanted to be Laurie Partridge when she was growing up. The most personal information she could learn was her star's height, weight and favourite toothpaste. Now, the girls mine and know every single little detail - who [Ms. Cyrus] is dating, what she wants to wear and buy, who she's posed in her underwear for, what picture she took in the shower to send to which boy and that she wants to have breasts like Katy Perry. We found from our interviews with parents that they often aren't aware of the extent of information their girls know and make sense of.

And how do they make sense of it?

That's the complicated question. Making a YouTube video of yourself in a push-up bra and a tank top when you're 10 years old and having adult men subscribe to your [channel] - that's what we're seeing. They're looking at media role models and imitating. What are the deeper spiritual and mental health implications to your identity? What are the girls spending their time, money and energy on, that could be spent on other things?

You look at clothing. What stood out?

We're hearing from parents that it's hard to find neutral, innocuous clothing. It's all pretty, pink, sparkly and sexy. There's a lot of trash talk on the clothing. We saw skinny jeans for babies at the Gap. We're seeing high heels and thongs, belly shirts, low-rise jeans and wedge heels.
How did we get to this point, the pornification of little ones? How did we get used to it, and who is the audience? The feminist theory that it's the male gaze doesn't quite satisfy us.

What about toys?

The Bratz are so explicitly sexualized that [children's book publisher and distributor] Scholastic has banned them. They had a brand called Rock Angelz and they come with a groupie van. It had a bar and hot tub. There's nothing subtle about it and they're calling them toys - toys for what? ... From our workshops, teachers really do question why parents buy this stuff. It's easy to get into simplistic judgment but we hear from moms that it's hard to say no. It's a constant barrage and the cross-marketing is complex.

How is this script affecting their relationships?

Some immediate effects are a disruption between girls and their parents, who report a lot of conflict and pressure. Regarding friendships, teachers report these themes disrupting classroom learning and play as early as Grade 1. This sexualized curriculum disrupts important opportunities to develop social skills and self-esteem. The implications relate highly to the development of a relationship with the self: knowing who you are and what your value is, regardless of style, accoutrements, social status, attention and posing. I'm interested in knowing more about how fathers, stepfathers and grandfathers are making sense and responding - or not - to all of this.

What are you hoping to change?

We're curriculum theorists. For schools and teachers, we want to position these issues as a curriculum that we can think critically about. The next step will be setting up a blog space where the teachers who have been involved can continue to be co-researchers and contribute to a tipping point.

What's your advice for parents?

We caution against sticking one's head in the sand and figuring, 'This is just a free-for-all.' But we also wouldn't suggest banning pop culture texts altogether. What we know is that children learn about themselves and the world in the context of their family, school and culture. When we engage with our kids about this stuff, we create opportunities to communicate our own values. We secure our position as role models when we engage.