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I Want to Be Sexy ... Just Like Mommy

Media has only some part to play in the early sexualization of girls — a new study indicates their mothers play a vital role too.

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Focusing on moms as the study does is problematic, though, says Sharon Lamb, the author of  “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “It sort of puts mothers as the answers  and to blame,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, now mothers feel guilty if you don’t sit down and watch ‘Sesame Street’ and do the dishes instead!”

Like Durham, Lamb emphasizes the influence of parents in general. “We’ve known for a very long time that with eating-disordered girls and teenagers, the more their family has talked about looks and weight and appearance, the more that contributes to [disordered eating].” Just watching and discussing TV with their parents can lead to adolescent girls’ increased self-esteem and body image.

Lamb says the message of her book is that “the parents need to get in there and provide a counter-discourse.” She explains, “You can’t turn off media; it’s all around them in every way, but it’s nice to know that your relationship makes a difference.” None of which is to negate efforts to change the media: It shouldn’t be one or the other but both, Lamb argues.

This isn’t just feel-good advice: Plenty of research has demonstrated that consuming media with your kids — or “co-viewing,” as the research papers call it — is crucial. “We know that it’s not just the adolescents who watch more TV who choose to self-sexualize — it’s the adolescents who identify with the pop stars or characters in whatever media they’re watching that are more at risk,” she says. “So what parents can do with their co-viewing is to critique so that it interferes with that identifying with the characters.”

As the report from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which Lamb coauthored, points out, research has shown that adults outside the family can have a similar influence simply by providing a counter-narrative — for example, while kids watch a TV clip showing stereotypical gender roles, an experimenter makes a remark contradicting the stereotypes and the kids are more likely to express “greater acceptance of nontraditional gender roles.”

These discussions are not only effective but “actually necessary at this point,” says Durham. “Otherwise, children are just going to be absorbing these messages without any counter-messages or countervailing information, where parents might be pointing out the profit motives of the media and the ways in which sexuality especially is constructed in order to support those profit motives.”

Of course the catch is that parents are as subject to similar cultural influences as their kids. As Dunham says, “Sexuality in American culture today is an impossible regressive standard, and it doesn’t understand sex as part of a holistic concept of personhood.” Freeing adults from that regressive standard may ultimately free kids, too.


Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.