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Too Sexy Too Soon?

From a very early age, our children are bombarded with graphic messages about sexiness. From the clothing marketed to pre-teens to video games, music and the media, our children get the message that being “cool” means being sexy.

By Dr. Susan Sugerman and Dr. Kwabena Blankson

Kids are constantly exposed to sexual images and behaviors devoid of emotions, attachment, or consequences. The result is what Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne describe as the “sexualization of childhood,” in the book So Sexy So Soon (Ballantine Books, 2008).

From low-cut tops for girls, to sagging waistlines for boys, our teens, tweens, and even young children seek to dress in adult ways. Our kids want to dress in ways adults consider sexually provocative before they even understand what the word “sexy” means.  For those of us who are concerned, possibly even offended, are we being too old-fashioned?

No harm, no foul?

With kids raised in a “sexualized” culture, we risk creating a generation of young people whose value comes from their physical appearance and sex appeal, rather than from their own internal sense of self-worth.  They learn how to look and act in ways that shock adults and see their parents as un-cool for not being supportive.  High school students grinding at dance parties, let alone twelve-year-olds posting flirty selfies, have a hard time understanding why we “make it a big deal.” Medically speaking, this sexualization can plant the seeds of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, anxiety, promiscuity and even relationship violence.

The blurring of boundaries between childhood and adulthood can derail development in important ways.  At a time when they should be growing their skills at having healthy friendships, learning the difference between a “boy who’s a friend and a boyfriend,” they may feel forced to take relationships toward sexual expression prematurely.  Children learn to see that sex, not affection or true emotional intimacy, is the primary focus of relationships between adults.

Just saying “no” in one household, while it is your right as a parent, doesn’t help a child process what they see other kids doing. What if her friend offers to lend her a pair of skimpy shorts at camp? Parents can’t possibly monitor everything everywhere.  What is a kid to do when stuck between the pull of peers and the pressure from parents? Finally, parents get worn down after the repeated pleas (and whining) of  “but all of the kids are wearing this.”

What to do?

Understand where your kids are coming from (but not in the middle of shopping for a prom dress). Hear what she thinks about the dresses in the magazine rather than criticizing her friends’ choices.  Ask your son right after the TV show what clothing styles he thinks are cool instead of going to battle about purchases at the mall.

Set expectations about types of clothing that are acceptable. Explain your preferences, but be open to compromises that still fit within your range of reasonable.  If you have a firm boundary, then keep to it, at least on that shopping trip, but allow conversation about a future purchase decision.

Be compassionate—toward your kids as well as yourself.  It’s hard to be the only girl with the long dress on.  It’s hard to be the lone parent who says, “That dress is too short.”  Fortunately, the great thing about our mixed-up fashion generation is that there are often compromises available.  Work with your child to find at least part of what they want while respecting your reasonable limit.

Use the power of your own peer community.  Just as kids may rely on group trends to argue for a specific fashion request, so can adults communicate with each other to set collaborative community standards.

Let’s learn to be okay with our children being “beautiful” and “handsome.” And let’s save the “sexy” label for an appropriate age. Is 26 too old?! 😉

For more information visit Girls to Women Health & Wellness at

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