So Sexy So Soon

Commentary by Jean Kilbourne
Wellesley Centers for Women
Spring/Summer 2009 Research and Action Report

Thong panties and padded bras for seven-year-old girls are sold these days at major department stores. Tiny pink high-heeled shoes are advertised for babies. Risqué Halloween costumes for children (such as “Pimp Daddy” and “Child Ho”) fly off the shelves. T-shirts for toddler boys proclaim “Chick Magnet” and “Pimp Squad.” Little girls go to makeover parties and spas, and teenagers are encouraged to dress and behave like strippers and porn stars. F.C.U.K. is the name of an international clothing chain popular with young people.
Some of the cover stories for recent issues of magazines popular with young teenage girls include “15 Ways Sex Makes You Prettier” and “A Shocking Thing 68% of Chicks Do in Bed.” “Grand Theft Auto,” a video game especially popular with teenage boys, allows the gamer to have sex with a prostitute in a stolen car and then murder her. The latest version sold six million copies in its first week and grossed five hundred million dollars.1
I started talking about the sexualization of children way back in the late 1960s, when I began my work on the image of women in advertising. The first version of my film “Killing Us Softly,” made in 1979, included an ad featuring a sexy little girl and the slogan “You’re a Halston woman from the very beginning.” I knew something was happening, but I had no idea how bad it was going to get.

Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising. Her newest book, So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, co-authored with Diane E. Levin, was published in 2008. Her book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, won the Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology in 2000. She is also known for her award-winning documentaries Killing Us Softly, Slim Hopes, and Calling the Shots.

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Our family is reading Laura Sessions Stepp’s “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” a book about the “hook-up” culture that currently prevails on our college campuses, so this commentary in a recent professional mailing caught my eye. Of course, I have long been a fan of Jean Kilbourne’s work.