COLUMN: Need to be sexy starts early

Monday, October 18, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 3:55 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 21, 2010

The doctoral student in this column is Marilyn Preston. An earlier version of this column misidentified the primary source.

COLUMBIA — Girls will soon flock the streets in raunchy princess attire, skimpy enough to mistake them for $10 street hookers ready to role-play. Notice I didn’t say women. It’s because I meant the Hannah Montana fanatic, Barbie-doll playing, Silly Bandz wearing girls, not the college women you might have imagined; these are elementary school youngsters trick-or-treating for Halloween.

For years, Halloween has been deemed as the one day of the year it is socially acceptable for women to prance around in lingerie with wings or fuzzy animal ears and call it a costume. Sexy costumes aren’t just for adults anymore, and that’s a shame.

This year, expect life-size Bratz dolls to knock on your door and ask for candy. While this may sound alarming, parents around the country continuously support dressing their preteens, young girls and even toddlers like mini Katy Perrys for Halloween. Are parents who allow their risqué rugrats to trot the streets irresponsible? Or, in today’s media-engulfed society, is it the new social norm?

Seeing children in revealing, inappropriate attire is nothing new, according to Marilyn Preston, a doctoral candidate at MU who studies sexuality in schools. “You see it everywhere. The kind of outfits they sell, the kind of bathing suits they sell, are all sexier at younger and younger ages.”

Halloween is just one explicit example of this disgusting reality we live in; children are unknowingly sexualized on a daily basis.

According to an American Psychological Association study, the sexualization of children most often occurs when adult sexuality is inappropriately imposed on them rather than chosen by them. Advertisers use their bodies to sell things, dressing them up to appeal to the adult market of parents that view beauty as a specific image of glamorous, unrealistic perfection plastered in TV, movies and magazines. Parents don’t even realize they’re falling prey to these sneaky advertising schemes.

“We become desensitized to it,” said Preston. “Parents may be unaware to the way in which children’s clothing is sexualized.”

There’s nothing deceiving about Party America’s Deluxe Mystical Genie Costume’s description. The two-piece, belly-baring getup — the equivalence of a sports bra with a sheer covering and satin pants — runs from a girl’s size seven to a size 12. Advertised with the slogan “becoming a mystical, exotic genie isn't wishful thinking,” the suggestive costume looks like something I’ll see amongst my college peers at Halloween parties.

The word “exotic” paints a picture far, far away from adolescent girls trick or treating. Tigers and pelicans are exotic. Sandy white beaches with an oceanfront view are exotic. Naked girls dangling from a pole at a gentleman’s club are exotic. The homemade costumes I grew up wearing were always “adorable,” “funny” or “crafty,” not to mention recycled and passed down from my older sisters. They were never exotic.

I remember dressing as a vampire when I was around 9, long before the vampire craze sparked by "Twilight" and "True Blood." I wore black sweatpants, a long-sleeve shirt and a black-and-red cape. My mom painted my face like alabaster, slicked my hair back with gel and plastered it to my scalp, then sprayed it black with a cheap bottle of color hairspray. Plastic fangs and shaded bags painted under my eyes completed my walking dead look; it was hard to tell whether I was a boy, girl or the actual Count Dracula.

This year, expect to see an influx of modern-day vampires inspired by their recent popularity in pop-culture such as the movie "Twilight." For around $20, you can dress your Team Edward daughter in a “hot pink and white lustrous dress with black mesh and white lace trim” Draculaura costume from Party City (fishnets and excessive eye makeup sold separately). If you don’t like that idea, there are an array of other “vampire princess” costumes to choose from, though you won't find any scary vampire get-ups for girls like the one I created as a child.

Vampires have shifted away from the bloodthirsty monster lurking in the night to a new, provocative image. Modern vampires have flawlessly chiseled abs and curvaceous, lustrous figures. Their skin and hair glow with perfection. Their voices sound musical, enticing those who listen. Even their scent heightens their attractive appeal, drawing their prey, ordinary humans, in with curiosity and desire.

Images that once haunted people in their sleep now dominate the daydreams of boys and girls alike, tantalized by the sex appeal of the new generation of monsters. With a new connotation of sex and lust rather than horror and fear, is a vampire costume still appropriate for young girls?

Sexualized cultural ideals can shape young girls' views of femininity and sexuality and spark an array of negative emotions such as shame, anxiety and self-disgust. Sexualized girls have more problems with self-esteem, eating disorders and depressive symptoms as they try to maintain the standard of beauty the media inaccurately portrays. They begin to value beauty over intellect, prioritizing their appearance over all other pursuits.

“It is damaging for women to live in a world where they are constantly told they have to be sexy,” Preston said.

Elementary school youngsters are already using sexuality in their language and in their behavior to control their peers, according to Preston. They deem certain activities for boys, like sports, and other activities, like house, for girls because they have learned gender stereotypes through society.

“Sexuality is used in early elementary to gain power and popularity," Preston said. "They don’t even know what they’re talking about, but they learn it from the culture around them.” 

Boys fall victim to the sexualized images, too, getting an unhealthy opinion of what girls are like.

“Narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness may make it difficult for some men to find an 'acceptable' partner,” according to the APA summary. They compare the images of women on TV to women in their everyday life and are disappointed. They may not understand that images on TV are often skewed, carefully formulated illustrations created by a team of professionals and an array of cosmetics, lighting and edited effects.

Men learn a narrow ideal of image for themselves similar to the stereotypical ideals girls are taught through media. “They need to be strong but also sensitive, athletic, but also just a little bit smart. It’s just as narrow as what women are expected to be in culture,” Preston said.

When I asked two first-grade boys I tutor what they are going to be for Halloween, one said Batman so he could save the city and the other wants to be Ben 10, another strong male superhero from a new popular cartoon. When I asked what they think I should be, they both agreed upon a princess, specifically Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."

Keep in mind I have dark brown hair and hazel eyes, far different from Ariel’s fiery red locks and blue eyes. I wasn’t wearing a purple seashell bikini top or teal skintight fins for bottoms. To put it simply, I looked like a college student in sweats ready to go to class, not a mermaid you might see in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. I asked for their 6-year-old reasoning behind their quick response.

“Well, because you are a girl, and you are pretty.”

I hope we’re not too late.

Alison Gammon is a junior at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is pursuing a minor in Women's and Genders Studies. She wrote for the Missourian in the spring semester.

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Marina Shane October 18, 2010 | 3:18 p.m.

Years ago, I used to love having kids come by the house for Halloween. Now, I dread it. At work we have consistently 2000-3000 kids parade down our street. The ones ages 8 an up are predominently dressed like street hookers. It's disgusting how sexualized kids have become. (not to mention outright rude.) There no more telling of jokes to get a treat. Now it's just grabbing hands with no please or thank you.
I don't so much blame the kids.... I blame the parents (who so many of them look like they are no more than kids themselves). Maybe that's the real issue. Kids having kids.
While there are still a few good ones in the mass amount of trick or treaters (And good parents who make them say please & thank you).... they are fewer & farther between each year that goes by.
(Now the little ones age 3-7 seem more into emulating their heroes for Halloween. And those little guys are SUPER CUTE!)
And to the parents who walk around with babies to get candy (and don't have any other children with them).... STOP IT! We know that baby can't eat candy! Go buy your own!

(Report Comment)
Moian Reader34 October 18, 2010 | 6:49 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Jaclyn DiPasquale October 19, 2010 | 10:13 a.m.

I love this column. I think the addition of the links to the Party City costumes really put it into perspective how inappropriate Halloween has become for young girls. I work at Adventure Club and I would be extremely disturbed if one of my girls came to our Halloween party dressed in one of those costumes.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 19, 2010 | 12:11 p.m.

I'd make it broader than Halloween and the very good comments made above. We are depriving our children (both male and female) of their childhood!

That's cruel, even if not intended.

Consider the current lifespan of an American. The number of years of that life spent in childhood is at most VERY small. Don't shorten it! In some economic circumstances young children may be forced to "grow up too early," but that isn't the norm in the United States.

(Report Comment)
Furqaan Sadiq October 31, 2010 | 8:18 p.m.

Congrats! Your article was cited by Erin Bradley from The Daily Beast:

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