Book Review – So Sexy So Soon – The New Sexualized Childhood

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids
Diane Levin, Ph. D. and Jean Kilbourne, Ed. D.
Ballantine Books, New York, 2008
211 pages

Angeles Arrien (author of The Four-Fold Way) once said, “When we lose touch with our inner wisdom, we abnormalize the normal and normalize the abnormal.” What was considered crazy, disgusting, or taboo yesterday could become status quo, even necessary, tomorrow-if we aren’t paying close attention to our own internal guidance system. But that’s not so easy to do anymore. Today’s commercialized culture pushes limits for market share and bombards with mass-delivered influential, often aberrant messages-making it increasingly difficult for moms and dads to function from their “wise selves.”

An extremely disturbing trend is the counterfeit culture’s sexualization of children. From early childhood through adolescence today’s kids are bombarded with negative gender images and skewed messages about sexuality. Twenty years ago, for instance, when I was raising my children, it would have been unheard of, even unspeakable, for manufacturers to market thongs for seven year-old girls. Yet today, crazy as it is, that’s what’s happening. So Sexy So Soon provides many other equally distressing examples of how our innocents are now just cogs in the “sex sells” marketing wheel. The impact is profound. So Sexy So Soon demonstrates the critical urgency of the issue and beautifully articulates what can be done about it by parents and by all of us working together to stop this insidious form of child abuse. (The authors remind us that the thong is the stripper’s clothing of choice, in case we have forgotten.)

Diane Levin is professor of education at Wheelock College and has been involved in training early childhood professionals for more than twenty-five years. She has worked extensively in the field of media-related issues, and is an internationally recognized expert on the effects of violence, media, and commercial culture on children, and speaks often on these subjects. She is the author or co-author of seven books including Remote Control Childhood? and The War Play Dilemma. Jean Kilbourne, a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on the image of women in advertising. A popular lecturer, The New York Times Magazine named her one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. She has produced award-winning films, including the Killing Us Softly series and is the author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.

Either one of these remarkable women could have alone written So Sexy So Soon. I’m glad they decided to team up, instead. The combined wealth of each of their backgrounds and expertise bring a rich tapestry of ideas, examples, and suggestions. The ultimate power of the book is their compelling united voice-not only as professionals pioneering this work, but also as mothers. By sharing parenting examples of their own fears, questions, and successes, (We even get treated to a piece on what parents of teens need to do by Jean’s then twenty-year old daughter, Claudia) they give us hope. It’s nice to know we are not alone in the trenches-even experts don’t have all the answers. Yet, if we do a few things right-like keep connected to our kids and our love for them, lots can work out well. Even experts get lucky.

By admitting that this is a complex issue with no quick fixes and by giving practical “how tos” the authors provide both a thoughtful analysis of the problem as well as an effective action handbook. The comprehensive resources they’ve gathered are well- selected seminal books and organizations. There is something for everyone here. So Sexy So Soon will serve useful well beyond its copyright date because of the thorough research, practical activities, and fine resources.

Beginning with a discussion of what is normal and what is not normal, Levin and Kilbourne lay out the issue of sex, sexualized children and teens, along with the objectification this brings, linking the sexualization to consumerism clearly:

“But sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than connecting. The problem is not that sex as portrayed in the media is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical. The exploitation of our children’s sexuality is in many ways designed to promote consumerism, not just in childhood but throughout their lives.” (p. 9)

Chapter 3 gives important guidelines about how young children are likely to think about sexual images based on their stage of development. This is an extremely helpful tool, especially since it is coupled with a discussion of the key concepts that parents need to effectively address the problem. “Children are learning lessons from today’s sexualized environment that can undermine the very foundations they need in order to grow up to be capable of having caring relationships of any kind, including those relationships in which sex plays a role.” (p. 71) Much useful information is given for teens, too. What happens when the sexualized child enters adolescence? Levin and Kilbourne let you know. Parents may be shocked by some of the information. I doubt, for instance, if many moms and dads realize just how accessible porn stars are to their kids through Internet marketing. “Lauren Phoenix, star of scores of porn films…sells tube socks to teens in American Apparel ads, and porn queen Jenna Jameson has launched her own fashion line.” (p. 143)

The “clash of cultures” between what parents want for their children-the family culture-and what the commercial culture actually pushes to their children, forms a backdrop for So Sexy So Soon. The authors know that it is parents, as well as their children that suffer because of this. “In a 2002 survey of parents of five-to-seventeen year olds, almost half reported that their biggest challenge was trying to protect their children from the negative influences of the outside world.” (p. 75)

Levin and Kilbourne give many examples of struggles to understand and mitigate the commercial culture’s influences on children and teens-examples any modern-day parent or teacher can relate to. Several of the examples are given in detail. In these the reader has the opportunity to journey with the parent (or pull her hair out with the parent) as he or she struggles to figure out how to respond to a little girl crying because she “is too fat,” for instance. In addition to providing parental dilemmas, the authors give explicit examples of how to talk to children about these issues; what to pay attention to while we are listening to our child talk about these issues; and important questions to ask and why.

Chapter 6 focuses on “the power of connecting deeply with children,” and gives sentence-by-sentence dialogue with the mother and the little girl who thinks she is too fat, alongside a commentary by the authors with explanations for the suggestions given. If you don’t have a lot of time, you could start the book here. There are other excellent examples given in Chapter 6 as well. These show the potential responsiveness of children when we relate to them and the elimination of parental fear when we understand how our children are thinking about potentially contentious issues. The book demonstrates that listening deeply, asking non-judgmental questions; keeping a clear head; and finding out all the facts-go a long way to supporting our children’s healthy development while lessening possible negative impacts.

The authors conclude by calling us to get involved in “creating a new cultural environment” with twelve excellent and do-able choices. Obviously, we cannot let commercialized sexualization of children become normalized. Levin and Kilbourne quote Cordelia Anderson, who reminds us, “‘once something becomes normalized, it becomes the wallpaper of our existence-we don’t see it, we accept it as just the way it is and we are numbed to seeing any ill effects or taking action to change it,'” (p. 178) So Sexy So Soon motivates us to productive action on behalf of our children, de-numbing our society in the process.

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