Childhood versus the Pussycat Dolls

Mercatornet, 29 March 2007

Written by Theron Bowers

A widely publicised report on the sexualisation of girls belabours the obvious and fails to make effective recommendations. Why?

First, Madonna, then Britney, today's queens of pop eroticism are the Pussycat Dolls. The former burlesque dance troupe turned singers are everywhere posing in lingerie and chirping, "Doncha". Last spring the toy company Hasbro even announced a plan for a Pussycat fashion doll. According to the New York Times, the toy line was "intended for children age 6-9" and aimed "to mimic the act’s playfully risqué style". Other sexy dolls have been hits -- the Spice Girls dolls generated 150 million. The Bratz dolls, mini-skirted valley girls, are popular and have a Saturday morning cartoon show. So the Hasbro deal didn’t raise any eyebrows. The business section of the Times reported on the story no differently than any other commercial deal. Readers were probably left wondering, what’s next, pole-dancing Barbie?

Fortunately, parents responded quickly to the prospect of their 6-year-old daughters mimicking the Pussycat Dolls. Less than a month later, Hasbro dropped its plans. Unfortunately, moms and dads had slowed the march against childhood for only a moment.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has also noticed these assaults on girlhood. Last month, it released a
report from its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Like many professional organisations, the APA is a subsidiary of the progressive movement. A few years ago the organisation published a study which suggested that child sexual abuse wasn’t very harmful. Lately, the APA has taken up the battle against American Indian mascots, abstinence education and teaching intelligent design.

The APA claims that the task force was begun in response to "public concern". The concern is hardly new. More than 25 years ago, the starlet Brooke Shields became a 15-year-old teenage sex kitten in provocative Calvin Klein ads for jeans. In 1999, after the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, we were introduced to the Felini-esque world of child beauty pageants with six-year-old girls coquettishly batting their eyelashes and prancing around in swim suits.

The APA's report spins a tale of a monistical cultural web involving the media, families and peers which harass and sexualise young female victims. In a Stockholm Syndrome twist, the girls adopt the men’s sexual image of women. The story ends with women suffering from impaired cognitive functioning, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, physical health problems and exploitation.
The Task Force has an easy time proving the obvious. The media frequently presents women as sexual objects. Unfortunately, the title of the report states, "Girls." Most of the sexualised images are of women. The authors of the report state that girls model themselves after women, hence the images are relevant.

Their justification is acceptable. Girls grow up with bed-hopping shows like Friends and Sex and the City. Former Disney Wonderkid, now trampy boozer, Linsay Lohan has praised Sex and the City stating that the show ''changed everything for me, because those girls would just sleep with so many people!''
However, the Task Force has a tougher problem demonstrating harm. Most researchers work at universities where there is a shortage of 12-year-old girls. The majority of the studies involve college women. While the old lemons and lemonade approach may work for some problems, good research isn’t so flexible. The Task Force tries to finesse the lack of relevant subjects by reasoning that "what young women believe about themselves and how they feel at the present moment were shaped by how they were treated and what they were exposed to when they were girls." Excuse changing the metaphor, but this lemon is hard swallow. People’s beliefs and feelings are also changed by what they experienced one hour ago. Anyone who has been to college knows how easily some young people can change after a few weeks.

None the less, the Task Force arrives at some interesting conclusions about the consequences of sexualisation. The attention grabber in several stories has been the swim suit versus the sweater experiment. The authors described an experiment with college students. Students were asked to try on and evaluate either a sweater or a swim suit. While waiting in a dressing room, they were asked to complete a math test. The women who wore the sweater did significantly better on the math test than women in the swim suites. The report notes similar results among minority women.

The writer concludes that thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualised ideas disrupted "mental capacity" (although it appears that performance was disrupted rather than capacity). The Task Force gushes over this series of studies: "The implications are stunning and suggest that sexualisation may contribute to girls dropping out of higher level mathematics in high school."
As for mental illness, the Task Force argues that cultural beauty ideas lead to eating disorders. However, the studies cited noted that only when the beauty idea emphasises thinness is there an association with anorexia.

Looking at the culture through the microscopic lens of science, the Task Force distorts the evidence throughout the report. The microscope shows decreased cognitive performance. Yet, the big picture reveals that college attendance is higher than ever and women outnumber men. The microscope focuses on the influence of beauty on thinness but ignores the influence of class values and health on thinness. Remember Gloria "You can never be too rich or too thin" Vanderbilt?

The Task Force places most of the responsibility for solving the problem with the government, through schools, legislation and research money. When mentioned, parents are portrayed as either ignorant dupes or as promoters of a sexualised message. Mothers are criticised for "fat talk" and fathers appear lecherous. Despite the emphasis on modesty and virtues other than attractiveness in traditional Western faiths, religion is only briefly mentioned and more attention is paid to eastern meditative practices than traditional Christianity.

Some headlines have proclaimed that the report calls for a removal of sexualised images of girls. In fact, the Task Force's recommendations are quite tepid. Although a minuscule proportion of advertisements involve sexualised image of children, the Task Force only suggests that the government "reduce" the use of sexualised images of girls. The Task Force recommendations are silent about limiting the use of eroticised adult female images or pornography. The Task Force fails to heed their previous evidence that girls are sexualised by modelling themselves after the images of adult women. The Pussycat fashion dolls may have a new life after this report.

The APA Task Force calls for a safe surrender and no meaningful changes in our current climate of sexualisation, illustrated by their emphasis on comprehensive sex education. Sex education is a harm-reduction strategy which is not intended to combat or support resistance to sexualisation any more than needle exchange programs fosters overcoming addiction. Meanwhile, the APA has declared a jihad against abstinence-only programs. Unlike cucumber and condom programs, the abstinence-only approach may actually encourage girls and boys to respect themselves, their sexuality, marriage and children.

The APA Task Force knows the problem but not the solution. For the Task Force, strengthening families and returning to traditional values is not a consideration. The Pussycat Dolls can curl up by their milk and sleep well tonight. The APA is no threat to Doll Power.

Theron Bowers MD is a psychiatrist Deep in the Heart of Texas and may be contacted at