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Tween Scene, Cover Story: Where's my little girl gone?

28-May-2008 (Wed) Mind Your Body, The Straits Times

By June Cheong

Some pre-teen girls dress and behave beyond their years. Experts tell MYB why it worries them when tweens become too sexualized

Nowadays, it seems that it's never too young to be sexy.

Even tweens - children between eight and 12 years old - are being bombarded by product and media images of women who are slim, svelte and pouty.

The experts, including those in Singapore, are worried.

Ms Vanessa von Auer, clinic director of EVA Psychology Centre at Camden Medical Centre in Orchard Boulevard, said: 'Pop culture really seduces tweens into a sexualised way of life.'

She added: 'On television and in magazines in Singapore, we see a lot of tall, attractive, fair-skinned people with Pan-Asian looks. There's pressure on tweens to attain that facade and when or if they don't, they think they're a failure.'

Many experts link American-style consumerism to the sexualisation of young girls, typically teenagers but, increasingly, tweens too.

Ms M Gigi Durham, associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, said: 'Part of it is that sexuality is a key aspect of marketing a variety of products, especially to girls, like cosmetics, diet aids and fashion.

'Marketers have figured out that they can cultivate consumers and keep them longer by targeting them at young ages. Pushing the goal of 'hotness' onto tweens orients them to these products very early.'

Many products like make-up, clothes and toys which target tweens and young teens seem to package the adult premise of sex in cute candy colours, persuading little girls to totter around in high heels and mini-skirts.

The media is being blamed too. Ms Durham has written a book, The Lolita Effect, which explores the increasing media sexualisation of tween girls.

Lolita was the sexually precocious 12-year-old character called Dolores Haze in Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 book of that title. The term has since been used in pop culture to refer to sexually aware little girls.

'Girls are influenced by the media to view their bodies judgmentally, to see sexual desirability as a life goal and to buy into the consumerism at the root of this media sexualisation of girls,' Ms Durham said.

A backlash - of sorts - has started against this sexualisation of young girls in the United States.

The star of Disney's billion-dollar franchise Hannah Montana, 15-year-old Miley Cyrus, whose fan base consists mainly of tweens, was recently embroiled in controversy over sexually suggestive photos of her published in the June issue of Vanity Fair.

Ms van Auer argues that Singapore is not immune to the Lolita effect. The top 10 television programmes for girls aged eight to 12 years old on Kids Central here last year include Bratz, Barbie As The Island Princess and High School Musical.

She feels that tweens who are constantly fed idealised images of beautiful, slim women can suffer from lower self-esteem and a negative body image, that is, how we perceive our own body.

KK Women's and Children's Hospital's principal psychologist in the psychology service Ms Frances Yeo, echoes this view. She said: 'These days, children and adolescents are more exposed to media like movies, video and computer games and the Internet.

'These media often convey images of ideal attractiveness and body shapes, which can be unrealistic.'

Non-realistic goals

In a 2005 study of nearly 140 British girls aged 11 to 16, researchers Daniel Clay, Vivian L. Vignoles and Helga Dittmar found that exposure to images of magazine models drastically lowered the girls' body satisfaction and self-esteem.

Ms von Auer said: 'It gives tweens a false sense of priorities and influences them to think that they can be successful only when they are attractive and beautiful.

'Such images pressure them into pursuing non-realistic goals. They don't realise it's just another human being under that make-up and airbrushing.'

Dr Roger Ho from the National University Hospital's Department of Psychological Medicine added that problems with body image may lead tweens to depression and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

Some tweens here are already feeling the social pressure to conform to idealised body standards.

Dr Ho said: 'Tweens are concerned about being overweight and short. They are sensitive to remarks like 'fat boy' or 'fat girl' which affect their body image.'

Rachelle Frederick, 11, a pupil in a mixed primary school, told Mind Your Body: 'One of my classmates is very skinny but she's on a diet. I think that's silly as she's already so skinny.'

Apart from the issue of self-esteem and body image, there is an even more serious danger - unwanted attention, such as from paedophiles.

Ms van Auer said: 'What attracts paedophiles is sexual naivete. Children who dress provocatively attract them.'

There is also earlier sexual maturity. Dr Ho said: 'Research suggests that adult sexual development starts as early as when a child is nine or 10 and not at puberty as previously thought.'

In the end, the best defence against all these pitfalls faced by the modern tween is still parental guidance.

Ms Durham concluded: 'The best thing parents and other caring adults can do is to open up discussions with their kids about these issues.

'These discussions can help parents and children see the differences between healthy, progressive sexuality and the objectifying, harmful versions projected in today's media.'

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