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Little Girls Gone Wild: Why Daughters Are Acting Too Sexy, Too Soon

Push-up bras, pedicures, hip-hop dance classes: These are now the social currency of the under-10 set. What happened?

The terrifying truth: It starts with princesses

My innocent toddler is already a prime marketing target, I learn when I speak to Peggy Orenstein, the author of a new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. "It's subtle stuff that puts girls on the road to getting their identity from how they look, which as they get older will be increasingly defined as hot and sexy," she tells me. "And you can see it starting with the Disney princesses." In Orenstein's book she makes the case that girlhood really is different today: more commercialized (companies spent $100 million in advertising to kids in 1983; today they spend almost $17 billion), more girly (nearly everything manufactured for girls - from birth - is screamingly, irritatingly, blindingly pink), and increasingly sexualized.

You may balk - what's sexy about a little girl in a pink princess costume? But sexy, as it turns out, is not the same thing as sexualized. Sexualization is not only imposing sexuality on children before they're ready and viewing girls as sexual objects, but also valuing a girl for her appearance over her other attributes. "Princesses are just a phase," Orenstein writes, but they mark a girl's "first foray into the mainstream culture.... And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants - or should want - to be the Fairest of Them All."

Orenstein builds her case with stats showing that the more a girl is exposed to girly-girl culture, the more vulnerable she is to depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, and risky sexual behavior. She describes one study in which college girls shown just two commercials with stereotyped portrayals of women - a girl raving about acne medicine and a woman thrilled with a brownie mix - expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers afterward than girls who hadn't been shown the ads. These days, the average child in America watches an estimated 40,000 ads a year.

"Just as they say marijuana is a gateway drug, all this stuff that's being marketed to little girls is a gateway to sexualization," agrees Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence. Simmons points, for example, to the trend of moms treating preschoolers to manicures. "When you take a girl to a salon at age 4, it equates prettying yourself with closeness to your parent. There's a message there: This is how we spend time," she tells me. "You're training her that buying things is what makes you valuable as a girl."

What begins with Cinderella is followed, once girls hit grade school, by less innocent stuff: TV programs like Hannah Montana and iCarly, which center around eye-rolling, miniskirt-clad girls whose idea of success is being a rock diva or a reality star. Their rapt audience - most in the 6-to-11-year-old demographic - follows the shows and the offscreen lives of their stars with wide-eyed curiosity. And then so many of those tween idols - girls such as Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, even Miley - wind up as premature sex symbols, headed for a fall. You can argue it has always been thus (Maureen McCormick has said she traded sex for cocaine shortly after playing Marcia Brady - Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!), but back then we never heard a peep about it. Now our 24-hour news cycle brings their skimpy outfits and crazy antics straight into our homes, where our kids can get a load of them.

"It's a pattern," Orenstein says. "They go from being role models, doing things like wearing promise rings, doing charity work, and what's the next step? They take their clothes off or head to rehab. The road to female identity is rocky right now, and these stars are traveling it in a writ-large, public way that reflects, in a smaller way, the dilemmas real girls face."

So how do you keep your little girl from becoming that girl, when the line between good femme fun and scary consumerism is so faint?

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