Let’s Turn Down The Heat, Sexy
The principal is sterner than usual and bellows on the microphone, “Now mothers, please turn your phones off. Completely off! No Whatsapping each other, ‘You’re so sexy, you’re so sexy.'”
I stifle a snort. One of the reasons I now avoid Whatsapp is because of this exactly: grown women – a bit red about the ears after the announcement – who constantly change DPs, upload selfies and try to outdo each other in empty, exaggerated flattery.
I didn’t dwell on some of the mums’ exchanges, featuring variations on the “You’re so HOT” / “No, you’re so HOT!” theme. But then, our little girls turned into mini-adults and casual eavesdropping revealed that they were taking cues from our conversations. Suddenly, what was harmless (even if vapid) banter in the adult world, seemed absurd and completely inappropriate. Children were referring to themselves and each other as “sexy”. What could possibly go wrong?
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A young woman I met recently said, “Have you noticed how forty-somethings look younger and younger, but teenagers are beginning to look far, far older than they are?” This is true. Thanks to a range of reasons including precocious puberty, advances in nutritional information, Botox, makeup, fitness and fashion, there is a tendency for women of all ages to lean (forward or aft) toward looking like they’re in their mid-twenties. Adult women can introspect (or not) individually about what sort of diamond they hope to turn into under society’s pressures to stay young. But we all need to think much harder about what this sort of premature sexualisation is doing to our girls.
Sexualisation happens when a person’s self-worth is linked to his or her sex appeal or measured by a standard based only on physical attractiveness. Objectification is when that image is used for others’ sexual gratification, including as a visual sexual prompt. Both acts are problematic, but they become especially heinous when imposed on a child.
Not much research has explored the effects of sexualisation on children, unfortunately. But the few studies are telling. In the late nineties, the American Psychological Association (APA) responded to arguments from child advocacy organisations, psychologists and parents by creating the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls. The Task Force’s report cites an experiment by Barbara Fredrickson in which 82 male and female college students were asked to don either a sweater or a one-piece swimsuit. They were asked to say how they thought the clothing looked on them; then they took a mathematical test. Male student scores showed no significant aberration, but all the women who wore swimsuits performed worse at the test than those wearing sweaters, suggesting that thinking about body image in terms of cultural sexualized norms affects mental ability
Further studies, similar and related, began to show that cultural cues about sexual ideals not only undermine confidence to the point of creating shame, but also disrupt intellectual capacity. The principal was right. All that “You’re so sexy, you’re so sexy” was probably interfering with the mummies’ powers of concentration. Now, imagine the impact on little girls who need to get good grades in Science and Maths.
It seems to have crept up on us insidiously. Yes, we’ve already been through the Barbie and Bratz discussion. We rolled our eyes at the thongs for 7-year-olds and thanked our stars that ‘here in India’ things are still ‘okay’. But really, are they?
As a professional eavesdropper, I know that 8- and 9-year-olds think about body image and compare how skinny each is. Ten-year-olds watch the likes of Arianna Grande wearing white lingerie, singing in a high-pitched voice, making weird child-like gestures and faces. On the kids’ TV show iCarly, there’s a scene when the girls (whose characters produce and star in a hit online series) are wearing swimsuits. The ‘tomboy’ is wearing a tankini with shorts, but the ‘pretty’ one is in a bikini, with an open robe over it. And let us remember (but not get started on) the misogynistic, inappropriate lyrics, dance moves and male-female dynamics of popular Bollywood.
Watching a music awards show, I sputter at my daughters, “Why are the men fully dressed but all the girls are in spangly underwear?!” They look at me surprised and then nod vaguely. It didn’t even occur to them it was weird. They had learned that This Is The Way It Is!
Sure, girls have always tried to look older, act sexy. But social media has turned this innocent experimentation into fifty-shades-of-grey-areas: SnapChat, Instagram, Vines, and YouTube seem full of little girls trying to seem older—but now receiving validation for their precocious behaviour, often from male strangers. It’s a dangerous precedent, not just because it is similar to what sexual predators call grooming, but also because of the impact on these girls’ academic performance—which now directly impacts their professional future.
We can and should turn this around. Let’s challenge norms and mindsets as a team: parent and child. Whether it’s TV shows, advertisements, books or films, teach your girl (and boy) to question stereotypes of all kinds, especially around gender and body image. Let your kids’ clothes be dictated by comfort and durability, rather than fashion. And most importantly, help build skills and applaud real achievements to create a solid, lasting foundation of empowerment and self-worth.
Oh … and the next time someone says “You’re so hot!” on Whatsapp, be sure to tell them of something real you achieved that day yourself.