I was at the Mall of Emirates in Dubai a few weeks ago, waiting to collect my nine-year-old niece from art class. With 20 minutes to spare, her father and I sat inside the mall and did a spot of people watching and the thing that struck me the most was how skimpily dressed a lot of young women were. And by young I mean teenage or pre-teen. It was like being at a beauty pageant in all the ways that make it wrong.
The sexualization of young women is not breaking news. It’s almost impossible to find spaces free from the bombardment of sexual imagery. There have been numerous studies to show links between sexual images on screen (movies, TV and ads) and young girls afflicted with eating disorders, low self-esteem and even depression.
I saw this on a trip to the enemy state India (I jest) where girls as young as five were dancing in a provocative manner on TV dance competitions, taking a cue, ostensibly from the sultry actresses of Bollywood whose “talents” are restricted to shedding their clothes.
India is far from the big bad West where we tend to blame all our problems on as is Dubai, but globalization has made it easy for such trends to filter down.
Our daughters, sisters, nieces, neighbor’s girls are dressing more like adults for the simple reason that manufacturers are creating adult fashions for young girls. It is too much to expect girls to wear baring clothes and then be surprised that it is not impacting them, especially when they are being exposed to sexual imagery in their everyday life.
Their heroes go from being princesses to Rihanna almost overnight, and I’m not blaming Rihanna for destroying a girl’s innocence. I’m simply saying that children exposed to such imagery believe that their value stems from sex appeal.
Now imagine being sexualized in your wardrobe and demeanor but living in societies where discussions of sex are considered taboo.
Do the young women strutting through malls in Dubai even know what signals they are sending out?
Is a slowdown of the sexualization of young children possible?
Not likely because a lot of this sexualization happens over the Internet which is difficult to monitor or control – despite parents’ best intentions to police their child’s time spent online.
It will terrible for us to see the “sassy-ness” of young girls as a sign of their liberation and power. This is true for women, not little girls who cannot fully comprehend the implications of gyrating their hips in tiny outfits.
When children take in sexual undertones from an early age, they also get sexually active at an early age. I’m all for freedom of expression and choice but are they making informed decisions? Or are they buying into image of sexy as sold to them by the media and marketing machine that supports manufacturers?
Where’s the message that girls can be whatever they want to be?
It’ll also be wrong for us to blame either the girls or her parents – neither of whom find it easy to say no to what appears to be the mainstream. But the pornification of young girls cannot be allowed to become the norm and this means parents will just have to resist the marketing gimmicks retailers are selling. And not feel like we’re failing our daughters by refusing to buy her clothes last seen in a 1970s porn film.
Parents can still encourage their daughters to express their creativity in their sartorial choices. What is of critical importance is to engage daughters in conversations about sexual matters and sexual health so that they are well informed on choices – one of which is to say no, to the predators and marketers from whom one must reclaim the right to be a girl.
(Muna Khan, Senior Correspondent of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at email@example.com)