Sexy Superstars -- Age Five?

Eden Wood.jpg

Eden Wood, child beauty queen

TLC has a new commercial out announcing the return of their show Toddlers & Tiaras.  If you listen to the announcer, he refers to the 5-year-olds as “sexy superstars.” 

Some viewers are interpreting it as “sassy superstars” but I studied it with my husband, and we both agreed that it sounds like “sexy.”  Quite frankly, “sassy” wouldn’t be much better.  

Even if there were no announcer, there is enough going on in this commercial to warrant concern.  The makeup, the sexualized outfits, the child’s own infatuation with her fame – is this really something to be celebrated? 

Certainly not to the community organization Pull the Pin, which is trying to pull the pin on childhood beauty pageants.  The people of Australia and New Zealand are rallying strongly against plans by Universal Royalty Pageant, a child pageant based in Texas, to expand into their territory this July. 

Psychiatrists from down under are displeased because pageants “encourage the sexualization of children and can cause developmental harm,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Eden Wood, the heavily made up blonde child who is featured in the TLC Toddlers & Tiaras commercial, has spent her entire life on the show circuit.  Her mother spends over $60,000 a year on Eden’s costumes, beauty treatments, pageant expenses, etc.  Recently, the little girl strutted her stuff for the ladies of The Talk, and their expressions summed up how I was feeling as I watched her sashay across the stage:

So, how does this trickle down to the rest of the girls in our society, the ones who are not competing in pageants and who are not prancing around in make-up and heels?   To my increasing dismay, it doesn’t just trickle down; it is a flood.  Little girls and boys are awash in images of sex and violence, neatly packaged by gender.  

I see it in my own daughter, who is probably more insulated than 99% of the girls in our country, because I am the (crazy?) mom who still doesn’t let Katie watch any television except for a DVD on Saturdays.  (This started as an experiment when Katie was an infant, because her older birth siblings have severe ADHD, and studies have shown a link between ADHD and TV watching before age 3.  We decided to have a TV-free household, and then we just got used to it.)

Katie, who in her seven years has never been exposed to commercials, still knows the word sexy, although she does not really understand the concept yet.   You don’t need to watch TV to feel the pressure to be sexy.  It is in pop music (Ke$ha, anyone?); print ads (clothing, perfume, accessories); movies (even Disney princesses); on the Internet (pop-up ads).  Of course Katie is interested in being sexy.  Sexy is everywhere.

I noticed the word sexy first appear in her vocab last week when we were shopping for some summer t-shirts and shorts at Target.  Katie pointed to a pair of sandals that she wanted.  High-heeled strappy sandals, prominently displayed in the children’s shoes.  “That pair is sexy,” she commented.  I explained to her that we would be buying flat sandals, and we began to search for a pair. 

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Target’s “sexy” sandal for first graders

We found five pairs of sandals in her size, and four of the styles were high-heeled or wedge-heeled.  We bought the fifth pair, a simple white sandal with an age-appropriate flat heel.  Katie loves them.

The flat sandal we purchased for Katie

Then we moved on to the clothes.  “Ooh, that’s sexy,” Katie pointed out. 

I was about to launch into a discussion of why she should not want to look sexy, when I remembered a passage I had recently read in Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne’s book So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Kids:

“The lens an adult uses for looking at and understanding sexual issues is very different from the lens a child uses.  Often when children say things that seem connected to sex and sexuality, they have very different meanings for the children than they have for adults.”

So I stopped myself and asked, “”Katie, what does sexy mean to you?”  I wanted to see through her lens before responding.

“Ummm, fancy?” she guessed.
“No, that is not what sexy means.  When you say sexy to mean fancy, people will misinterpret you.  Sexy means wearing clothes or acting in a way that will increase people’s feelings of attraction to you.  They will want to kiss you on the lips.  Not the way that little children kiss, but the way that older teenagers and adults kiss.”

Katie raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes. 

As we walked through the girls’ clothing section, I was pleased to see that most of the Target brand clothes were age appropriate – plenty of simple, colorful T-shirts and shorts.  Katie and I easily found cute, comfortable outfits.  It was a relief after the shoe section. 

But then we wandered into the underwear display, and right next to Hello Kitty underpants were padded bras and bikini underpants for 8-year-olds.  

I don’t have a problem with the marketing of unpadded bras to eight-year-olds, because the fact is that some children develop early and need bras in elementary school.  My problem was that the bras on display were padded, push-up bras, visible reminders that there are eight-year-olds who feel pressured to look busty for a variety of reasons — in order to fit in, or to be sexy to the boys, or to look thin in the waist by comparison to the chest.  

I recalled seeing another article, pointed out to me by my likeminded pals at Pigtail Pals–Redefine Girly, about how the British Retail Consortium (BRC ) is banning the High Street shops from selling sexualized clothing for children.   Padded bras and thongs were deemed inappropriate for young children, as were clothes with suggestive slogans. 

The intentions of the BRC are clearly not shared by the mother and manager of young Eden Wood.  As I did some more research on the tiny beauty queen, I came across a clip of her mother and manager talking about the child as if she were their property

Eden’s manager was proudly discussing the launch of an Eden Wood doll dressed as a Las Vegas show girl, the better to build her brand. The harm has already been done, because the little girl views herself as an object to be marketed.   She is so busy focusing on building her brand that she has forgotten to be a child.  

I compared the glammed-up images of Eden Wood to a photo I took of Katie on Sunday, grinning and sweaty after her soccer game, happily posing on her bright red bike. 

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Katie on bike in soccer uniform

What does an unsophisticated childhood look like?  Eden Wood will never know.  I thought back over Katie’s day.  It consisted of waking up way too early, helping me make pancakes, playing with our homemade Gak (a cross between silly putty and jello); biking with the whole family to and from her soccer game; taking a quick bath; performing in her ballet recital; going out to dinner; and then crashing in her bed.
At her ballet recital, Katie wore a simple leotard, tights and a skirt.  She was a little girl carefully trying to remember a few ballet steps.   Katie’s younger sister, Annie Rose, had performed in her first ballet recital a day earlier. 

Here is Annie Rose dressed in her leotard, tights and skirt, relieved that her time on the big stage was done.

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The dance recital was about as far removed as you could get from a beauty pageant.  The dance school, Dance Center Evanston, does not costume the younger children in anything besides their regulation leotard and tights plus a colorful skirt for the recital.
No sexy glittery outfits, no caked-on make-up, no Las Vegas showgirls here.  Just several hundred girls and a handful of boys, earnestly determined to master new skills and demonstrate them proudly for their families and friends.

I watched Katie on the stage, spinning happily to The Sound of Music, and then flashed over to an image of her dirt-covered face two hours earlier on the soccer field. 

When will the cosmetic companies and mass retailers see what so many parents already know?  Childhood is naturally beautiful.  No adornments necessary.

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  • I agree with nearly all you say here. I think some girls want padded bras for better that when they are cold, boys will not gawk or say inappropriate things--at least that's what my teens tell me. I do oppose the push up ones, though.

  • In reply to jtithof:

    Great point, Jackie! Hadn't thought of that use for a padded bra!

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