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Is popular culture contributing to the early sexualisation of our children?

March 21, 2016


As a professional of 30 years in the field of orphan care, and an Australian mother of three adult daughters (and three sons) and grandmother of four granddaughters (and three grandsons), this article was promoted in part by the action of an outraged mother, Nikita Friedman. On her Facebook page, a post titled ‘Mother hits out at Big W for ‘sexualising’ young girls’, she wrote that she was angered by what she believed was inappropriate clothing being sold for young girls. "Why on earth does my 1-year-old need to have shorts so short that her nappy is hanging out? Little girls are not sex objects. Gender bias is disgusting. I couldn't find a single pair of shorts in the girl's section today with an inseam of more than a couple of centimetres. Where is the variety and choice for parents looking to teach their children about sun safety and self respect?”  She also posted a photo comparing size one shorts for girls and boys, demonstrating the clear difference in length.(1) My oldest daughter had mentioned to me just a few days before of her difficulties in finding ‘decent’ shorts for my 3 year old granddaughter.

It is not only Australia that is noting the early sexualisation of children.  In the United Kingdom retailers are coming under increasing pressure to take some items off their shelves. High heel shoes for toddlers, padded bras for six-seven year olds have brought criticism from parents. (2)




Does sexualisation go further than ‘adult style’ clothing marketed to young girls? Yes, it includes sexual references on clothing, television and internet content including music videos, billboard advertising and unrealistic images in ‘supermarket’ and fashion magazines. It also includes how females are portrayed in films, publications or computer games. (4) I would also include younger and younger fashion models, such as Russia’s Kristina Pimenova, who at the tender age of 10 years, has been given the title the ‘world’s most beautiful woman’. (10)

One in six Australian women has experienced violence in their life time, with sixty-three women killed in 2015! Gut wrenching statistics of which I am ashamed. Our Prime Minster, Mr. Malcolm Turnbull, has allocated AUD100 million package to protect victims and attempt to reduce domestic and family violence.  Does the early sexualisation of girls and women contribute to this violence? (6)
Some might argue that my concern is just a ‘storm in a teacup’, and that little girls have always enjoyed dress ups, applying lipstick and wearing mum’s high heels! Children do think that this form of play is lots of fun. But the latest research shows the negative impact of early exposure of sexuality to children’s development, especially girls.

There are several important definitions used when discussing this topic. Sexualisation (or in the USA sexualization) is to make something sexual in character or quality, or to become aware of sexuality. (3) The European Parliament defines sexualisation as an instrumental approach to a person by perceiving that person as an object for sexual use, disregarding the person's dignity and personality traits, with the person's worth being measured in terms of the level of sexual attractiveness. Sexualisation also involves the imposition of the sexuality of adult persons on girls, who are emotionally, psychologically and physically unprepared for this at their particular stage of development. It relates to not being the normal, healthy, biological development of the sexuality of a person, conditioned by the individual process of development and taking place at the appropriate time for each particular individual. (3)
Sexualisation is linked to sexual-objectation; the act of treating a person as an instrument of sexual pleasure, as a commodity or an object without regard for their personality or dignity.(7)




Grooming is communication with a child where there is an intention to meet and commit a sexual offence. (8)
And finally, Corporate paedophilia is a metaphor used to describe advertising and marketing that sexualises children. (3)

Why the concern?
We all know that children are like little sponges; they listen to our words and observe our actions. Popular culture sends its healthy messages loudly and persistently through the media (television, movies, newspapers etc.) and the internet (Facebook, Twitter etc.) and it is drowning out other messages. Sadly, unless parents and other responsible adults speak out against the unhealthy messages, they will be internalised and will shape the values, attitudes and beliefs the children will come to hold about themselves and their world. (5)



Many believe that clothing that suggests sexuality is a form of ‘grooming’ and that this occurring younger and younger, especially in the western countries where popular culture is saturated with sex.(2) Research has found that sexualisation of younger children is becoming increasingly more common. (3). The results of one study reports that about one-third of the clothes for girls sold had ‘sexualising characteristics (5). 

Body Image
In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty, especially for young girls, is heavily emphasized in advertising. According to the Media Education Foundation, the dominant culture portrays girls as sexual beings which is detrimental to the development of a positive identity. (3)



Research has linked sexualisation of young girls to negative consequences for them and society as a whole, finding that the viewing of sexually objectifying material can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression and depressive affect. (3)  A American Psychological Association task force report found that girls who are exposed to sexual messages in popular culture are more likely to have low self esteem and depression, and suffer from eating disorders. (5) It cites the following as advertising techniques that contribute to sexualisation:

  • Girls in ads with sexualized women wearing matching clothing or posed seductively

  • Dressing girls up to look like adult women. E. g.child beauty pageants

  • Dressing women down to look like young girls. This is known as infantilisation

  • The employment of youthful celebrity adolescents in highly sexual ways to promote or endorse products.(3)

Gender and Sexist Attitudes and Behaviours
According to the American Psychological Association, sexualisation occurs when individuals, especially women, are portrayed with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness and are objectified.  It argues that this contributes to sexist attitudes within society and a societal tolerance of sexual violence. (3) It affects how boys and men view and treat girls and women, with implications for incidents of sexual harassment and violence.  If societies are serious about achieving genuine equality between women and men, and reducing sexual violence, is it time to challenge sexualisation? (2)

Consumerism and globalisation has led to sexualisation of girls occurring across all advanced economies. In 2006, an Australian report called ‘Corporate paedophilia: sexualisation of children in Australia’ was published. It concluded that images of sexualised children are becoming increasingly common in advertising and marketing material. Children who appear aged 12 years and under are dressed, posed and made up in the same way as sexy adult models.(3)



In 2012, an American study found that girls 6-9 years overwhelmingly chose the sexualised doll over the non-sexualised doll for their ideal self. (3) Another recent study found that girls as young as six years old wanted to be like dolls who were dressed in a sexy way compared to dolls who were dressed stylishly, but covered up. These young girls associated being sexy with being the way they wanted to look, being popular in school, and who they wanted to play with. Another finding of the study was the girls who had mothers who were overly invested in their own appearance were more likely to identify with the sexily clad dolls. (5)

Everybody in the community has a role in protecting children and young people and speaking up on their behalf if they are worried or concerned about their welfare!

1. Let manufacturers and stores know what you think!
Many parents and other adults feel disempowered because they do not know when and how to voice their concerns. . There are many different ways of complaining- ask to speak to the manager or write a letter to the CEO of the store, post on Face book, write an article to a newspaper. Friedman’s post, mentioned in my introduction, attracted a lot of debate and received over 60,000 likes and 4,700 comments.  Many parents jumped to support Friedman in the comments. However, there were also those who disagreed that the shorts were sexualising young children. (1)

2. Research
With the future of our children at stake, further research is needed. The important study, ‘Letting Children be Children: Report of an Independent Review of Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood (2011), was commissioned by the UK government. Children, organisations; businesses and the general public were interviewed. It identified four themes that were of particular concern to parents and the wider public. These themes were:

  1. The 'wallpaper' of children's lives

  2. Clothing, products and services for children

  3. Children as consumers

  4. Making parents' voices heard

Recommendations included that sexualised images used in public places should be more in line with parents and societies approval, retailers no longer selling or marketing inappropriate clothing, products or services for children, regulation protecting children from excessive commercial pressures across all media, marketers that are ethical and do not attempt to exploit gaps in the market to influence children into becoming consumers, and to see parents finding it easier to voice their concerns to, and be listened to by, businesses and regulators. (3)

3. Parents and Societies- our Responsibilities!
While parents and other caregivers have the primary role in ensuring the healthy development of children in their care, they also need the support from others in the community. Suggestions to achieve this aim include:



Developing positive and healthy children and young people

  • Value the child for who they are and what they do – not their appearance

  • Be a role model – be healthy and positive about your own body

  • Talk and listen to your children about their bodies and the normal changes that happen as they grow, particularly though puberty

  • Encourage age-appropriate activities and behaviour

  • Let family and other parents know the types of toys, clothing and play activities you want for your child (or do not want) and enlist their support

  • Discuss with your children media and advertising and the messages being used to sell products or the stereotypes being portrayed. Discuss movies, magazines, music, advertising, television programs, clothes and other products

  • Ask questions, listen to their perspective and explain your own

  • Talk to other parents and members of the community about your concerns (4)

4. Responsibilities of Industry, media etc.
Research shows that the fashion industry, media, and advertising industries can contribute and have an important role in the development of healthy body images and in reducing eating disorders. This requires collaborating with parents, legislators, and the children and young people themselves. As a minimum, they should adhere to an Industry Code of Conduct. For instance- classification of magazines (similar to films), stricter standards for billboards and outdoor advertising (which parents have the inability to restrict), and to use child and women models that have more realistic body shape. (4)




5. Join networks
Research the internet and you will find many interesting and powerful networks. I have listed several at the end of this article. One of my favourite is Collective Shout, a grassroots movement campaigning against the objectification of women and girls in media, advertising and popular culture. (9)

Some have argued that over recent decades children have gained a level of sexual knowledge or sexual behaviour inappropriate for their age group, and that the causes of this premature sexualisation include portrayals in the media of sex and related issues (especially in media aimed at children), the marketing of products with sexual connotations to children, including clothing, the lack of parental oversight and discipline, access to adult culture via the internet, and the lack of comprehensive school sex education programs. For girls and young women in particular, studies have found that sexualisation has a negative impact on their self-image and healthy development. (3)
I agree!  While children for generations have enjoyed ‘dress-ups’, it seems that retailers, manufacturers, the media and others are targeting children, grooming and encouraging them into an early sexualisation. While they have a social responsibility to ensure that children grow up with a healthy body, strong and positive emotions and values, as we need to also question our roles as parents and significant adults in the children’s lives.
Unless we question our own behaviour as a society, we risk creating a generation who are left unfulfilled through chasing unattainable and inappropriate lifestyles and values. (2)

1. http://www.essentialbaby.com.au/toddler/caring-for-toddler/mother-hits-out-at-big-w-for-sexualising-young-girls-20160209-gmp1p7.html#ixzz3zwiP44P4 

2. Too much, too young? Retailers still selling over-sexualised clothing to kids

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexualization
4. www.ccyp.wa.gov.au. Sexualisation of Children and its Impact on their Wellbeing: A guide for parents, members of the community, media, advertisers and retailers
5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-jim-taylor/the-disturbing-sexualization_b_1948451.html. The Disturbing Equalization of Really Young Girls
6. www.businessinsider.com.au
7. http://Wikipedia.org
8. www.networkofcommunityactivities.org.au
9. www.collectiveshout.org, www.sparksummit.com, www.tes.com, www.humanrights.gov.au, www.womensagenda.com.au, www.ywcavan.org, www.vawlearningnetwork.ca, www.ohchr.org
10. Style Magazine, 28/2/2016

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