Lolita in the Classroom
Dolls in fishnets, hair extensions for kids, and pole-dancing Tween tv stars. Girlhood isn't what it used to be, and that means teaching girls isn't either.
By Cynthia Kopkowski
Maybe it was when stores began stocking thongs embroidered with "wink, wink" in sizes for 7- to 10-year-olds, to be covered by sweatpants with "Juicy" stitched across the rear. That's about the time it became apparent that there is less sand in the hourglass for girlhood than there used to be. Or it could have been when teen magazines featured a Skechers footwear ad with popstar Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails with bra exposed. Or perhaps it was the plasticized proliferation of Bratz dolls, with their midriff-baring shirts and fishnet stockings, marketed to little girls.
Although it would be nice to think that educators don't have to worry about our culture's sexualization of younger and younger girls—to assume it is parents', Hollywood's, or Madison Avenue's problem—there's no keeping the effects out of the classroom.
A girl's world, starring a Bratz doll and (clockwise from top center) Upper Class teen lit book, Victoria's Secret Pink catalog, Keeping Up with the Kardashians reality show, racy undies from Juicy Couture, Gossip Girl teen soap, and celebrity Skechers footwear ad.
"Sexualizing childhood is diverting students from the kind of learning we want them to do," says Diane Levin, researcher and author of the forthcoming So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Kids . "With [the No Child Left Behind law's] emphasis on high-stakes testing and the narrowing of the curriculum, there's less time for teachers to address a whole range of issues in children's lives."
It's not easy growing up in a sex-saturated culture. Research linking sexualization to eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem is outlined in last year's report from the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. So far sexualized childhood has been understood as a social problem and is rarely discussed as something diminishing learning.
Educators on the front lines trying to teach young girls about the damaging influence of media and advertising face tough competition. Celebrity rules in the minds of many young girls today, and what they see on screen, be it TV or computer, is powerful.
On the E! television network's Keeping Up With the Kardashians, star Kim Kardashian giggles as her preteen sister demonstrates a move on a stripper pole installed in one of the house's bedrooms. Over on the CW, the teens in Gossip Girl banter frequently about sex. The show was routinely the top-rated among children ages 12—17 last season. And the girls themselves can become the celebrities, thanks to sultry cell phone self-portraits uploaded to Facebook and MySpace. At the same time, advertising, which was a $20 billion industry in 1979, is now a $250 billion juggernaut.
Pressure on girls now is "totally different," than in previous decades, says Levin. "Kids have always wanted to learn about sex. But what's changed is where they are getting their information from. It's the media—four to six hours a day on screens where marketing to children has become a huge industry and sex is used."
That plays out in the classroom, says Earlene Spencer, a special needs teacher at E.A. Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. "The role of pop culture and what those people are doing is not what we should have to be worried about in the classroom, but we are." Young females she interacts with now seem more unstable emotionally and under greater pressure to have sex than when she started teaching 19 years ago, says Spencer. "It is absolutely harder to be a girl in school now."
Colleague Wes Knape, the school's drama teacher agrees. "You've got pop culture saying it's acceptable to do these things at this age, but pop culture is not there to help you in the classroom."
Even pregnancy is starting to lose a bit of its stigma. Pregnant girls in Knape's class chatter excitedly about their impending motherhood and baby showers. No wonder then that the day after Britney Spears' 16-year-old sister Jamie Lynn Spears announced on the front cover of OK! magazine that she was pregnant in December, CNN ran the headline, "What will you tell your kids?"
So what's an educator to do?
Start by setting a good example , say fellow educators who are concerned by what they view as some colleagues' inappropriate clothing choices. "We need to start by talking to student members about the importance of their own dress," says Vielka Elvebak, a member of NEA's Women's Caucus.
Support dress codes for students. Spencer and Knape say their fellow staff members are wholeheartedly backing a move by the district to institute uniforms and dress regulations. "Anything that distracts from learning needs to go," says Spencer.
Rather than IGNORING THEM , be prepared to respond to specific situations as they arise—a child dressing inappropriately or talking about sexual behavior. "Teachers talking with students, really connecting with them, can help counteract the negative lessons kids are learning about relationships and personal behavior," from other sources, says Levin.
Consider holding seminars for parents on the topic. Teachers like Spencer and Knape would like to see at least one per year. "We need to tell society that we are not the family," says Spencer. Instead, "We need to get to mama."
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photo: groff creative, inc.