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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 717

Ms LEY (9:09 PM) —There are many wise words about how a childhood shapes a man or woman irrevocably and for life. One of my favourites comes from Nigerian author Ben Okri, who said:

We plan our lives according to a dream that come to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate.

Our job as parents and leaders in society and the community is to make sure that we do everything possible to ensure that positive dreams come to our young people—especially our girls—and I think that that quote provides a good sense of the critical importance of childhood and the way it shapes a future.

The sexualisation of girls is all around us and it is damaging our youth—bras and wet-shine lip gloss for five year olds; see-through lace, Tweety Bird G-strings, plunging necklines and full make-up kit.s for eight-to-12 year olds. It even leads through to the car advertisements, where we see a man who gets the top-of-the-line sports car and then a glamorous woman to ride in it—two possessions to be acquired. Sexualisation occurs when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour to the exclusion of other characteristics and when a person is portrayed only as a sex object. This debate is not about sexual liberation—the freedom of women to have the sexual relationships they choose where and when they choose—we all have our individual views about these things. What this is about is the corporate exploitation of children’s sexuality. It is not the sexuality itself but the sickening falsification and then the mass marketing of children as sexual beings that hurts us all.

I had a look at the current issues of Dolly and Girlfriend. ‘Dolly doctor’ this month has been asked about how you get rid of cellulite, how you get rid of big breasts, how you get rid of the freckles on your face and how you get surgery to get rid of the scars on your knees. The cover of the February issue of Girlfriend, which I think is only aimed at primary school and early high school, has a girl of somewhere between 13 and 23—the level of airbrushing makes it impossible to tell—wearing an off-the-shoulder dress and a come-hither look. One of the stories featured is how to be the girl who gets the guy that everyone wants.

As a society we are visually absorbed; it is all about how you look. And to a certain extent we recognise and lament this fact, and some of us from time to time feel the need to embrace it and jump on the bandwagon. It is a hugely conflicted and contentious area that challenges women of all ages, but it should not challenge children. Children are being bombarded with huge volumes of graphic sexual content and they simply do not have the maturity to process or understand the images or the messages. What are young girls to make of all this? There is a clear message which associates physical appearance and buying the right products with being sexy and successful. These lessons learned early will shape identity values, sexual attitudes and the capacity to love and connect with other people.

A woman I know who is the mother of three girls recalls when her oldest, who is now 25, came to her when in primary school, wanting to know why she was not as pretty and little as the girls on TV. Teen clothing manufacturers have introduced a zero size for women in America. What does that say to women—that anything in a positive number is a failure? Could we imagine a zero size for men? The message that our mass media and, more importantly, the advertisers who are their revenue stream, are giving to children is that sex has nothing to do with pleasure, desire or intimacy and everything to do with the things you consume and the things you buy. In this universe, the space in our brain where we should be developing sympathy and understanding is not nearly as important as the space in our shopping malls.

When children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is imposed on them rather than chosen by them. There is so much evidence of the sexualisation of women and girls in television, music videos, movies, magazines and sports media. The next step is self-objectification, where girls actually think of their own bodies as objects to satisfy others’ desires, as objects to be evaluated for their appearance. The research tells us that sexualisation and objectification undermine confidence, comfort and self-esteem, leading to a host of negatives: shame, anxiety and self-disgust. This in turn leads to eating disorders and depression. There is evidence that young women who hold the conventional feminine beliefs—avoiding conflict and valuing being nice, sweet, pretty and thin—are more likely to be depressed. This debate is about the current and future emotional, physical and psychological health of our girls. In telling our girls they can be anything, are we actually demanding that they be everything? In a world where girls face paralysing pressure to be perfect and where competitive pressures shape such a large part of who we are, surely we can allow girls the freedom to be children.