So Sexy So Soon: Shaping Youth Chats With Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D.

so-sexy-so-soonAugust 17, 2009 Last month So Sexy So Soon hit the market in paperback, though my hand-signed hardback by academic rockstars Diane Levin, Ph.D. and Jean Kilbourne Ed.D is frayed, highlighted, and worn from full use with youth and parent ed groups ever since its release last year.

I broke bread with these two research pioneers at Susan Linn’s house when she hosted all of the presenters at the CCFC summit on Sexualized Childhood last year and felt a bit like ‘Odd Girl Out’ as Rachel Simmons would say (forthcoming interview with Rachel on her new book releasing 8-25 shortly) because I was the token branding/industry veteran in an impressive sea of doctoral Ivy leaguers, medical practitioners and psychological pros.

I was heartened to be welcomed not as Darth Vader, but as a saber-wielding insider eager to find ‘another way’ to reach the light…and to me, that’s what changes the entire conversation. It’s not enough to cluck about APA research and tsk about the trauma and harm to kids’ sexuality, the key is in the action steps to DO something!

That’s where So Sexy So Soon won me over with the chapter header, “Helping Teenagers Through the Minefields” and the finale, “Creating a New Cultural Environment,” complete with ‘12-step’ action plan. Now we’re talkin’ my language…

bratz body image ccfc logoAs regular readers know, I tend to lean hardest on those closest to my own mission to ensure the rebel yell isn’t just a reframing of ‘the problem’ but instead, a concerted effort to seek SOLUTIONS.

I say enough power whining and evidence-gathering about the toxic tipping points of body image, early sexualization and the dysfunctional way it’s tweaking kids’ own sense of a healthy sexuality, let’s energize the youth themselves to help shift the zeitgeist toward positive pursuits and engage their voice as the advocacy arm.

They’re the ones being dealt this smarmy deck of cards, right?

That’s one of many of Kilbourne and Levin’s action steps instilling the media literacy mandates early on at the elementary school level, so that kids are in control of the commodification playboard not just pawns in the game.

Pioneers like Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin have been pounding these shores for a ‘sea change’ for decades, largely talking into a conch shell awash in mega-spending by marketers.

But the tide IS turning…

When Spielberg himself rants on the amount of kids’ gaming violence, Geena Davis leads the way in gender equity, Amy Poehler launches Smart Girls at the Party TV, and Hollywood heavy hitters lend their clout to begin to Do Something not just be short-term PR poseurs…then we’re inching toward systemic change.

dollar-signGranted, money talks, and it takes funding to effectively counter-act the multi-billion dollar war-chest of advertisers selling insecurities for profit and an increasingly narrowcast view of what it means to be ‘sexy’…

But the So Sexy So Soon authors have been building momentum in an international arena as a favorite on college campuses so that youth voices take the helm, which I personally think is key.

It’s not enough to build awareness, clamp down on accountability, social responsibility or regulatory change…it also takes teamwork and convergence when ‘all sides’ join in an open dialog, including YOUTH who are pivotal in that peer to peer conversation about body snatching childhood.

killing us softly vizJean’s Kilbourne’s award-winning films like the Killing Us Softly series and Slim Hopes on the image of women in advertising are eye openers for many a teen team.

They’re all part of Shaping Youth’s film fest screenings as ‘house parties’ for youth/parent education. (check our sidebar at right for updates; you can find them via MEF, the Media Education Foundation too)

Other favorites, like Calling the Shots and Spin the Bottle focus on the alcohol and tobacco ads that target youth with ever-stealthy ‘lifestyle’ positioning, age compression, and plot point/product placement. I’ve found they work wonders as ‘aha’ moments and motivators for teens who feel duped and betrayed by the precision of being in marketer’s deliberate crosshairs.

dianeDiane Levin is a co-founder of CCFC, (Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood) who I’d heard speak way back in 2006 on the effects of media violence and commercial culture at a local CommonGround series on The War Play Dilemma long before the latest Transformers and GI Joe movies hit the circuit…

Little did I know I’d end up sitting next to her that autumn in D.C. crammed in the shuttle van of the CCFC summit on school infiltration of commercialism and curriculum.

Needless to say, despite the divergence with the CCFC brand name itself I’ve found an amazing tribe of similarly concerned media educators, grad students and parents unwilling to ‘sell off’ childhood to the highest bidder…

jeanSo with that preamble, here’s my chat with Jean Kilbourne (bio) who helps us understand the difference between sex, sexuality, sexiness, sex ed, and sexualization in this paper chase for profit…

I often sum it up in my Body Blitz: Media Shaping Youth documentary work as what happens when “cash registers go ‘ka-ching’ but kids’ psyches go ‘ka-boom”…

It’s easy to see how ‘sensual’ gets tossed under the bus in favor of ‘sexual’ antics in the sensationalized ratings game for profit at all costs. But it’s short-sighted, as the cost to society of “So Sexy So Soon” dynamics squish into a twisted sense of self at ever-younger ages has yet to be revealed.

Shaping Youth: Let’s start with the Miley mess and the Teen Choice Awards…Sexy or sexualized? With Disney’s ‘no comment’ is there any chance this wasn’t ‘planned?’

Jean Kilbourne: Not a chance. There’s no doubt in my mind that Disney is absolutely involved in every step of her very carefully packaged public image. The cynical ploy for more coverage is all a part of her ‘handlers’ and I’m sure they’ve focus grouped and researched extensively whether it would hurt her fan base or not.

It’s just like the Vanity Fair cover ‘controversy’…they wouldn’t have run it if it would have caused her harm, it was deliberately created to reshape her image with new excitement for the next phase of her career…It’s unlikely it’s even her choice really, which strikes me the most…The commodification of Miley as a ‘property’ to be managed and finessed by her handlers.

Yes, she’s coming up on 16, but we all know that the Hannah Montana fan base is much, much younger…So even if Disney sees it as selling herself to the next demographic, parents and young girls receive the message that this is how that age group looks and acts…THAT’S where the early sexualization and the harm kicks in; preschoolers playing dress up with padded bras, the whole tween thong aspirational marketing and ‘so sexy so soon’ influence.

Shaping Youth: Are the youngest kids most likely or least likely to absorb signs of sexualization? Could they be unaware and miss it altogether? Or is it too early to tell what will happen there?

Jean Kilbourne: Performers’ young fans see them as role models, and that’s worrisome because it DOES normalize the climate of sexualization and objectification. When we repeatedly portray young girls as sex objects and entertainment vessels instead of thinking, feeling, competent, individuals, it compromises girls’ sense of self-worth by narrowcasting the options available… Young fans may be ‘unaware’, but that’s all the more disturbing as it’s coming at them on a subliminal level.

They imitate and model after their media pop star favorites, which is a particular risk since they’re the most vulnerable to marketer’s efforts. At 8 and under, their brain cognition functions differently…they don’t really separate Hannah Montana from Miley Cyrus and vice-versa. Unfortunately, it’s the REAL life kids that get hurt, and the handlers don’t concern themselves with that, because they’re all about the profit.

Kids try to play out what we as a society are telling them is valued in our culture. Music videos, digital avatars even cartoon animals are ‘selling what’s deemed sexy’…at a high cost to not just girls, but to boys and men.

Shaping Youth: How so? You mean the whole ‘buffed boy/hottie’ persona at younger ages? The Adonis Complex or relational aggression or what?

Jean Kilbourne: Media socializing boys to repress their feelings and equate masculinity with violence end up treating themselves and others as ‘objects’ too…With gaming violence, access to internet porn, and judging females by these idealized media images, images get skewed…Empathy for women becomes kind of a “compassion deficit’ disorder.

The messages are all about sex, not sexuality…It paints a very limited picture and you end up with that hollow, empty feeling of low self-esteem, yearning for a ‘real’ relationship. Not just with girls, boys too…

Shaping Youth: I felt numb and even ‘bored’ at the ‘here we go again’ pole/porn Pussycat Doll stripper context of yet another teen idol served up in objectification; kind of like that article, The Banality of Outrage. It’s not ‘sexy’ to me at all, there’s no subtlety or nuance whatsoever. Is numbing out an acquired coping skill? Is this happening with kids?

Jean Kilbourne: Actually, this is part of a larger problem at any age. The constant barrage of human beings as sex objects shapes our self-perception as well as our partners; it fouls up a healthy development of sexuality and idealizes a standard of what constitutes beauty and desire.

Numbing IS a common coping skill, but it’s not often a healthy one…It can bury and desensitize true feelings to dull the impact, create cynicism, and create distance.

In the book I talk about how couples in advertising rarely look at each other, men and women in music videos USE each other, and there’s a cold, passionless sex that seems perfunctory.

It’s ironic that we live in a sex-saturated culture but it’s strangely not erotic. As French philosopher Roland Barthes said in speaking of Japan, “Sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the U.S. it is the contrary, sex is everywhere, except in sexuality.”

As parents we need to reinforce emotional intimacy and connection so kids aren’t robbed of the chance for real affection, developing the skill sets they’ll need to make a more lasting, caring relationship later on…We need to open doors not close them when it comes to dialog about sexuality AND sexualization with kids.

Shaping Youth: Industry will argue ‘sex sells,’ it’s ‘no big deal’ and objectification is no different today than pin-up girls and Playboy bunnies…What’s changed aside from MORE media, age compression focusing on younger kids and a free market economy that claims it’s ‘what people want to buy?’

Jean Kilbourne: First of all, sexual images aren’t meant to sell our children (or us!) on sex, they’re intended to sell us on shopping. You’re right, marketing insecurities for profit is nothing new, marketing provocative sayings on childrens’ clothes, skimpy thongs, padded pushup bras, Barbie bustiers and Bratz dolls with cocktails and hot tubs for pre-pubescent kids IS new.

We need to help our kids become media literate early and often…Whether it’s walking through the toy aisle, or watching a DVR together and talking about it later.

Parents CAN override the depictions in the media but it takes a lot of work, talking with kids about what they’re seeing and hearing directly, raising awareness, participating alongside them without judgment, challenging assumptions and stereotypes, and role modeling healthy behavior and positive body image so you’re consistent with your message.

There’s always been a “bad girls make good company” media message put forth, along with a double-standard making it nearly impossible to achieve a healthy sense of self.  Girls are supposed to be sexy but innocent, experienced but virginal…that’s tricky. Now add in the high decibel media sending mixed messages, of princess power and ‘slut/ho’ lyrics and the polarity and noise is a constant.

Shaping Youth: Seems like ‘the perfect storm’ for lousy cues to kids when so sexy so soon performances, lyrics, and celebs are all pumping out the same messages…(sex without emotion, bodies as casual, impersonal objects, etc.)

Is there a bright side here? Hope? Solutions?

Jean Kilbourne: Sure! For starters, I’ve spent decades hearing people say “oh, you’re reading too much into this” and as it’s gotten worse, people are finally starting to pay attention! It used to be that there were only a handful of us fighting what was perceived as “interpretation”…

Now, with studies like the APA Task Force and quantifiable data showing the damage and the harm to kids, the cultural climate is shifting and more people are beginning to pay attention and take action.

Media depiction may have gotten ‘worse’ or more graphic in the last forty years, but the opportunity for a sea change has gotten ‘better’…

I pioneered some of this research and was a lone voice, now there are organizations shining the spotlight on all aspects and opening new dialog, not just about gender and stereotypes and objectification and violence but about the impact media is having on a global scale.

Shaping Youth: Can you give examples? How are today’s mass media portrayals of sex and relationships impacting kids, particularly the ‘teen mama’ shows so pervasive right now?

Jean Kilbourne: In So Sexy So Soon, we talk about how there’s very little accurate information about sex, but plenty of sexual content.

UNC researcher Jane Brown points to the failure of the ‘Three C’s” in TV and movies: Commitment, contraceptives and consequences. (e.g. an average teen in the U.S. views nearly 14,000 sexual references annually) Mass media may be the ‘super peer’ but as sex education it’s lacking…kids need REAL information, not the selling of sex as a commodity or a plot point.

As for the trivialization of sex and objectification of both genders, no question there are some larger corollaries…A society trained to label, groom and perceive very young girls as ‘seductive’ with early sexualized imagery of “children looking older” puts them at risk for a variety of unwanted behaviors (child porn/trafficking/abuse etc.)

Similarly, when boys see men in media who treat women badly or as conquests portrayed as music video heroes, celebrities, sports icons or ‘scoring’ with rewards for gaming violence it’s not a far leap to see controlling relationships, teen dating violence and verbally abusive power plays.

Shaping Youth: Ahem…still waiting for the bright news here!

Tell me WHY you see hope for systemic change in this kind of environment! Besides sheer numbers of more of us making noise and taking action, where’s the evidence we can turn this tanker around?

Jean Kilbourne: Precedent. This is no longer a theoretic problem it’s a concrete public health concern. All my work with curbing alcohol and tobacco marketing over the years has helped solidify my thinking about how we need to go about systemic change.

About 30 years ago over half of all adults in the U.S. smoked and it was allowed everywhere from public theaters to hospitals and planes…Public health activists chose to emphasize the positive, clean air, better health, freedom from addiction and changing the environment with an eye toward an improved future…we can learn a lot from these recent successes in changing attitudes and apply them to child development.

What do we want for our children? How can we create an environment that supports healthy behaviors, relationships, communities, and sexual health? These are the questions we need to focus on with an eye to toward the future…

Like tobacco and substance abuse, we know the damage potential and the toll on kids’ lives, now it’s a question of ‘what are we going to do about it?’

Shaping Youth: Thanks, Jean…You know my answer to that one…Use the media to flip the message…Deploy via digital, engage youth themselves in the conversation…

“Let’s roll.”

A Parent Primer At A Glance:

Sexualization: “When a human being is portrayed or treated as a thing or object, to the exclusion of any other value.” Examples:

  • Young pop stars dressed as sex objects
  • Dolls aimed at young girls with sexual clothing such as fishnet tights
  • Clothing, such as thongs, for seven to 10-year-olds
  • Adult models dressed as young girls (e.g. Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl w/her shirt unbuttoned licking a lollipop)

Sexual Health: World Health Org defines it as “a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

What’s the rub?

Harm, reverb & evidentiary findings: The APA Study (72pp pdf report) shows findings of depression, eating disorders, cognitive functioning and sexual development setbacks harming young girls is summed in this brief BBC recap and this article I wrote about it when the study was first released.

What can we do about it?

See So Sexy So Soon’s “Dozen Ways to Turn the World Around” Action List on Creating a New Cultural Environment

Tips for various ages & stages from toddler to teen

Diane and Jean’s Book Group Discussion Guide (I think this would make a great mother-daughter book club pick; the perspectives for ALL could be enlightening!)

Resource List from So Sexy So Soon

CCFC Fact Sheet on Sexualizing Childhood

CCFC Two-Page pdf of stats & resources on sexualization “Sex on TV4” (Program for the study of media & health

Wellesley Centers for Women: Commentary on So Sexy So Soon

body-blitz-clapboard1As many of you know, this topic is near and dear to me, as I’ve been working on a documentary, Body Blitz: Media Shaping Youth holding up a camera to K-5 playgrounds…

Every week for 3 years at noontime Shaping Youth captured schoolyard conversations documenting the trickle down impact of media on kids.

Media, Shaping Youth is an intervention program that takes a hands-on, entertaining approach using counter-marketing programs to educate and shift behavioral cues being transmitted from pop culture.

And though we’re currently stalled in funding phase of the production, here are some poignant soundbites and outtakes from Ca. kids that I’M using in my OWN work:

  • “Do these jeans make me look fat?” (age 7, viewing her backside)
  • “Oh yeah? Well you have wet dreams!” (age 9 girl bullying a boy)
  • “Ew, she’s got, like, a unibrow! Gross! Wax, already!” (age 10 girl)
  • “Is your butt really Juicy?” (taunting a brand-wearing classmate)
  • “I’m too sexy for my shirt…” (in full chorus w/sexy dance moves)

I notice that on So Sexy So Soon’s blog, Diane Levin has posted a few herself this past week:  They seem much milder than mine, so clearly the Bay Area here in California has some regional nuances…

• A group of four-year-old boys and girls walk around the school play yard holding hands because they’re “on dates.” A conflict occurs over which boy will get to have the “prettiest” girl for his date.
• Three preschool girls go to the dress up area, put on fancy clothes and capture the attention of all of their classmates as they begin going around the room sticking out their chests, wiggling their hips and puckering their lips—trying to do a “High School Musical” dance.
• A kindergarten girl points to a table of girls in the school cafeteria and tells her teacher, “Those are the popular girls.” When the teacher asks her how she knows, she says, “They have the sexy clothes.” [And they do!]
• A 5-year-old boy tells a girl in his class, “I want to have sex with you.” When she tells her parents, they come to school very upset. The boy is sent to the school counselor in preparation for suspension because of the school’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. The counselor asks the boy what he wants to do to the girl. He cries, “I want to kiss her, I like her!”

Again, noteworthy between both Diane’s quotes and my own kids’ data…This is a VERY young crowd of kids that really “don’t know what they’re saying” when they hurl phrases and act out in imitative media mode.

These are sidewinders and sentinels as far as I’m concerned…

Shaping Youth’s Highly Recommended Reads

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids
Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes (Packaging Boyhood, coming Oct 2009;  S.Y. Board Advisors)
Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown

Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent Sexuality
Jane Brown et al (Eds)

Sex Education Info from the SexTech: ISIS-Inc. Conference

(ISIS-Internet Sexuality Information Services)




  1. Speaking of ‘So Sexy So Soon’…Hardy Girls Healthy Women just sent me this absurd cover magazine photo of a YOUNG young YOUNG girl straddling a milkshake in sexualized omg, what are they thinking mode…Sheesh. Crying foul loudly on this…

    Again, we need to get YOUTH into this conversation:
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Back to School: Are Teens REALLY Going Green? =-.

  2. In fact, the HGHW verbiage is worth reprinting here too, as it’s spot on:

    “If there’s any question about the increased sexualization of girls and general pornification of the culture, check out the cover of The Maine Edge, a publication out of Bangor Maine that seems so desperate to be “fresh and edgy” that they’ll sell out your daughter and mine for sales. The current issue’s cover has a young teen girl in a bikini straddling a milkshake. Everything is suggestive about this image — her body position, the location of the whipped cream and the straw, the red cherries, the “Milkshakes aren’t just for kids any more. Beat the heat with a grown up treat” title of the article, and the online sidebar “Inquisition Survey” that makes it all so clear: Does your milkshake bring all the boys to the yard? Possible answers? Yes. No. Um…what?

    More like “Um…what are the editors at The Maine Edge thinking? Why does edgy have to mean sexing up young girls? How “fresh” is a lame reference to a dated and cheesy rap song (Kelis’ 2007 song “Milkshake”) about breasts? Want to be really creative? Try putting your heads together and coming up with something clever and smart that doesn’t make teen girls into sex objects. These days using pornified images of girls to sell products is as common and lazy as it is offensive.”


  3. Most numbers of youth indulged/involved in sexual activities is result of the easy access to pornographic materials, giving more than enough freedom to them to do things…

  4. Interesting comment, Lyka…Not sure I agree w/your premise, however, as online porn/access etc. is only ONE part of a very huge shift toward sexualization and objectification in pop culture in general much less the gender/age compression trendtracking reflecting the “KGOY” effect (kids getting older younger) We need to look at the ‘big picture’ to deconstruct the ambient cues of what we ‘value’ in societal messaging…and in that regard, it’s imperative we raise the bar, as kids’ psyches are getting hammered with false expectations and unattainable ideals that are nothing short of vapid values in terms of some of the toxic cues landing on ’em sideways. On an upbeat note, the digital generation is taking hold of the eco-philanthropic-hands-on actions that merit HUGE applause, so we have to keep our sites on what’s working and what isn’t! 🙂
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Josh in a Box: Helpful Advice For Parents of Teens! =-.

  5. Media is one, for sure. And surprisingly, careless acts of family members contribute a lot to that. Being too showy when inside the house and in front of the children, things like that. Too much intimacy feeds to kids curiosity.

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