And as everyone with a TV, computer, smartphone or newspaper knows, Miley Cyrus proved she is no longer a Disney Girl by strutting around the stage at the MTV VMAs in flesh-colored latex underwear, her tongue wagging, her hips gyrating, a huge foam finger provocatively thrust between her legs. Over the past two decades, the rise of the Internet and social media initiated a dramatic shift in popular culture: Almost everything that could be sexualized has been sexualized, producing a new generation of girls racing toward womanhood before even finishing puberty.
The result terrifies many adults: American women, age tween. Exactly what — and who — is a tween? Tweens range in age from 10 to 12 years or 8 to 14 years, depending on whom you ask.
At the same time, the word tween has become so common that it allows many adults to distance themselves from this radical transformation in the sexualization of young girls, as if it were just another life stage.
For the last few years, I have been following this stunning transformation, talking with girls, parents and experts. Facebook and Twitter were still the province of teenagers and adults. And yet it was clear even then that tween girls were totally plugged in to popular culture, trends and sex — an education their parents were constantly — and sometimes desperately — scrambling to monitor.
It is impossible to write about the representative tween, since each girl has unique experiences, interests and points of reference. Geographic, racial, religious, socioeconomic and familial factors vary, too, and play key roles in development. Because they have ready access to the technologies, social media, fashions and culture that play such a prominent role in their sexualization, I have focused on the experiences of middle- and upper-middle-class girls.
Unless first and last names are given, all names have been changed for confidentiality. Still, she is a malleable thinker, consumer and marketing target. Each day, she is exposed to eight to 12 hours of media, depending on her age, that hones her understanding of how she is supposed to act.
She spends a significant portion of her day plugged in — communicating, posting photos, playing games, surfing the web, watching videos and socializing. The media start to parent. The tween years are a period of learning and acclimation, yet the lessons of gender and sexuality begin much earlier. Forty-five percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls use lip gloss or lipstick, 61 percent wear nail polish up from 54 percent in and 42 percent use perfume or body spray, according to a study by Experian Marketing Services.
Those numbers jump when girls hit their early teens: This desire to dress up is learned from parents, older siblings, friends, toys, magazines, books, computer games, apps, social media platforms, Disney characters, parent-approved celebrities, parent-disapproved celebrities, pop music, shopping malls, advertisements, billboards and more. For decades, Disney has been raising girls on cartoon princesses of effortless beauty, impossible proportions and a penchant for crowns and mirrors. They are good and chaste, sexy but not sexual.
That is a scary show with a lot of sophisticated content. They come into my office barely clothed! For decades, it was generally accepted that girls hit puberty at the age of Like a Virgin Adolescence as we know it was born in , with the publication of G.
What was once regarded as a biological process of maturation came to be understood as an entire life stage: By that point, middle-class girls were already a discernible target for marketers. In the s and s, Helen Pessel sold her Little Lady line of cosmetics to 6- to year-olds, and Munsingwear and Teenform marketed bras to young girls. In , Barbie arrived. Dressed like a sunbathing glam goddess, she was a transition toy for girls too old for baby dolls and old enough to image having boyfriends.
Barbie had the hair, the breasts and Ken, teaching girls what to desire while showing other marketers and businesses how to reach them.
Thus began the gradual yet persistent sexualization of girls: In a series of commercials, Shields seduced the audience with lines like, "Mama said he's only interested in my Calvins" and "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? By that point, Shields was already an established brand of pedophilic adoration. With her prepubescent body oiled up and her face thick with dark eye shadow, thick mascara, blush and red lipstick, she faced the camera naked, washing herself with a sponge.
The Calvin Klein ads shot by renowned photographer Richard Avedon simply capitalized on Shields's persona, and in return, Shields proved that sex, girlhood and marketing sells in this case, jeans.
By the s, the Internet made pornography instantly accessible. Girls started wearing low-rise jeans, thong underwear and bellybutton rings.
Sex and the City, which famously featured the Brazilian in a episode, glamorized the successful single woman with her bachelorette pad and trail of suitors, making the privileges of adulthood accessible to young women. Sex was not simply a pillar of the entertainment industry; it permeated the news coverage of politics, too. Later that year, Viagra arrived.
In the mids, the cynically infantile British girl band, the Spice Girls, leveraged the purchasing power of millions of preteens and teens by selling music under the guise of girl power. In doing so, they primed the public for a crop of fresh-faced teenage Lolitas; Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera quickly transformed from parent-approved good girls to sexed-up pop stars.
During prime time, 77 percent of shows included sexual content, averaging nearly six sex-related scenes per hour. Among the top 20 shows for teenagers, 70 percent included sexual content and 45 percent included sexual behavior.
Reality TV heated up in the lates and earlys. And while less than one third 28 percent of reality shows contained sexual content, according to Kaiser , the genre largely presents young women as sluts, prudes, bitches, gold diggers and emotional basket-cases. Throughout the s, reality TV refined its purpose, exploring what happens when a group of hot young things live, drink and sleep together.
In other words, if it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. These days, reality TV has turned the spotlight on young girls, from the tween darlings chasing fame in Dance Moms to the life of 8-year-old Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, an overweight child beauty contestant in rural Georgia. These girls, so close in age to their fans, are infinitely accessible.
From perfume and makeup to American Girl dolls, the landscape of pre-teen consumerism reflects just how young, old, and in between this demographic really is.
Fifty-one percent want to be famous. Uhls and Patricia M. As mothers look more like their daughters and teenagers look more like somethings, who do preteens look up to? Tweens today are constantly exposed to the seemingly impossible expectation of being innocent and sexual simultaneously.
Tweens effortlessly, almost innately, navigate new social media platforms while parents are forever trying to log on and keep up. She wanted to see cute pictures of bunnies kissing.
Once tied to desktop computers in family living rooms, tweens' Internet access is now in their pockets and stays with them all day. Not surprisingly, media consumption and exposure explodes between the early and later tween years. Eight- to year-olds average five and a half hours of media use a day , and thanks to their deft multitasking skills, they cram eight hours of media into those five and a half hours; to year-olds average nearly nine hours a day, which stretches to 12 hours with multitasking.
And because of that, it makes girls more vigilant about their social status and relationships — and therefore, invariably, more paranoid, which in turn gives rise to drama and misunderstandings Almost every tween I interviewed is active on at least one social platform, most more. They know how to take, edit and post videos. They scour YouTube for clips of their favorite pop stars, music videos and beauty tutorials.
They write fan fiction or follow fan blogs on Tumblr. She is a dancer and religiously watches beauty tutorials on YouTube. I like Miley Cyrus's songs but not her. She is the only one that I think posts inappropriate stuff. She's just like, really weird. Girls I interviewed generally liked her music but were confused by her image, disapproving of it without having a vocabulary to explain why. In addition to amping up the importance of having a lot of friends, followers, likes and comments, social media also heightens the pressures and skirmishes that often go down at school.
You have started a war. You cannot take it back. Girls learn how to take selfies and pose provocatively simply by watching and liking.
The rewards — likes, comments, followers — are instantly gratifying. The stakes, however, are high. Last September, year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide after being cyber-bullied. While one must be 13 or older to sign up for Facebook, an estimated 5. And that's just Facebook, the social platform tweens seem least excited about. Kids are being asked to respond to and exist in a world that is just too grown-up for them.
They have no attention span. Their identities are intrinsically tied to their favorite products, yet their tastes change quickly. Preteen girls will love something with an intense, complete passion that, once exhausted, will morph into an intense, complete rejection.
What exactly do preteens want? What are they buying? From Build-A-Bear and American Girl dolls to thong underwear, tween consumerism reflects just how young, old and in-between this demographic is.
One girl wears booty shorts and a bra with a thin layer of black mesh lace cascading over her stomach. Another sports a tank top and ruffled miniskirt. A third shows off a sporty, lace-trimmed V-neck tank and a see-through black lace tutu.
They are flat-chested and not overly made-up. Their smiles show teeth as opposed to that ubiquitous model pout. Cassie, a year-old from Los Angeles, says she learns about trends and makeup from the older girls on her dance team.
Once a couple of friends bought her a pair of high-waisted shorts. To be fair, many parents hand down older models and keep the upgrades for themselves.