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Too Sexy Too Soon

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WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Marisa Cohen
Redbook Magazine Logo
While it may seem cute when a 5-year-old copies the hip-shaking dance moves she sees on TV, it's also one of the first signs of how the adult concept of "sexiness" is being sold to younger and younger kids today, say Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D.

In their new book, So Sexy So Soon, the authors explore a culture where grade-schoolers want to dress like go-go dancers, 10-year-old boys have seen Internet porn, and 13-year-olds talk casually about oral sex. Here, Kilbourne discusses how childhood is changing, and what parents can do to protect their kids:

What's different about how little girls are acting and dressing today?

We used to dress up in our mother's clothes. Now little girls are dressing up as sexy teenagers, and there are clothes being marketed to them that look like they are from Victoria's Secret. I see little girls wearing strapless black numbers to the school dance! As a result, girls are getting the message that not only is it important to be pretty but it is also important to be hot and sexy. Research clearly shows that this pressure is damaging to girls' self-esteem.

How does this affect their relationships with boys?

Girls have always gotten the message that it's important to attract boys, but we used to get it a little later, when we were 12 or 13; now they're getting it as early as 6 or 7. Girls in grade school are competing with each other to see who's the hottest, and then boys are learning that's how they should look at girls. It sets up a dynamic that does an enormous amount of harm. Little boys learn to look at girls as objects rather than as friends.

What happens as kids get older?

When a girl has learned early on that what matters most is how sexy she is, then by the time she hits the tween years, the message is already deep in her psyche and it just becomes louder and more harmful. Sex gets speeded up — 12- and 13-year-olds are doing what 16-year-olds used to do, and by the time they're 16, many are already blasé about casual sex. That's when you hear about "friends with benefits" and kids thinking about sex as being separate from a relationship. This not only puts them at physical risk for STDs, unwanted pregnancy, or even date rape, but they also lose the chance to develop the empathy and compassion that are necessary to make intimate relationships work later on.

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