Four best friends pile onto a couch in an attic playroom in a leafy suburb of Boston. It is the fall of , just a few hours after school has let out for Thanksgiving break. Every few minutes, someone screams, "Ewwwwww! Who's dating who?
She has long blond hair, arched eyebrows and a gigantic smile. She has an innocent face and wears a pink fleece jacket and dangly star earrings. The only girl who doesn't answer is Cat, a bubbly, plump year-old who has a boyfriend but won't admit it, so Brianna shouts, "Cat dates Andy!
After practicing their supermodel walks and screeching comments like "Rearrrrr! He made out with a guy on national TV. He did a little" she pauses, lowering her voice "oral sex there. The girls erupt in laughter, then unanimously agree that Miley Cyrus is a bad influence and this was years before her twerking episode.
And her black bra is showing. Her shorts are up to here ," pointing high up on her own thigh. No matter what the topic, their conversation always seemed to come back to sex. And a lot of their questions were directed at me.
She looks around the room with the awe of someone just granted a backstage pass to a concert she wasn't allowed to attend in the first place. She sits next to me and plays with a pair of magnets. And they know what they're called, and they know how to do it.
Like, grinding. Emma tries to look occupied, but she is clearly clocking every moment, every detail: the way these older girls talk, dress, laugh and tease.
They realize it, too, and quickly migrate to the other side of the playroom, where they practice handstands and check themselves out in the mirror. At one point, Madison stands up and shouts at me, "We promise we'll let you in on all the info. The hyper-sexualization of young girls is everywhere. Every Halloween, costume companies market somewhat provocative versions of skeletons , vampires , pirates and gothic ballerinas to tweens and teens.
Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have morphed from pudgy cartoon characters into slimmed down infantile sexpots, and even My Little Pony and Candyland - yes, a toy horse and a board game - got sexy makeovers. 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. The U. Census estimates that there are more than 20 million tweens in the country; just under half are girls, and they are the primary focus of this story. The nickname "tween" references a vaguely defined life stage somewhere between childhood and adolescence but it also delineates a dynamic marketing niche.
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. Normal, even. 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. Today's tween is no longer a child but not yet an adolescent; too old for Barbie dolls and Disney Junior, too young for Facebook and to understand the search results that pop up when she googles "sexy. 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.
When TV, music, social media and the Internet are used as baby-sitters — when adults don't ask girls questions or encourage them to think critically and sometimes even when they do — a dangerous scenario emerges: 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: 65 percent of to year-olds use lipstick or lip gloss, 84 percent wear nail polish and 78 percent wear perfume.
Among 8- to year-old girls, 46 percent like to keep up with the latest fashions and 35 percent think it's important to wear "cool" clothes, according to Experian. 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. As girls grow up, they graduate from those cartoon movies to shows like Miley Cyrus's seminal Hannah Montana and, later, The Bachelor , a reality series on Disney-owned ABC that pairs a modern-day prince with a parade of interchangeable Miss America lookalikes who are sexually attractive but not sexual, educated but not overtly intelligent.
That is a scary show with a lot of sophisticated content. Today's preteen girl is a new breed. They come into my office barely clothed! It's all designed to be provocative, but I don't think they really know what they're provoking. American girls are entering puberty earlier. For decades, it was generally accepted that girls hit puberty at the age of In , a landmark study of 17, girls found that the mean age for the beginning of breast development was 8. Then, in , another study found that by the age of 7, 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls and 10 percent of white girls had started developing breasts.
And you'll interact back like you're You're more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors," says Dr. Frank Biro, director of research, adolescent and transition medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, whose study linked early-onset puberty with obesity. In our media-saturated world, this sexualization seems unstoppable, and for many of the people involved — marketers, image makers, entertainers and corporations — desirable.
Adolescence as we know it was born in , with the publication of G. Stanley Hall's groundbreaking book of the same name. What was once regarded as a biological process of maturation came to be understood as an entire life stage: "Adolescence is a new birth, for the higher and more completely human traits are now born," Hall wrote.
Emphasizing the "identity crisis" of teenagers, Erikson defined for generations the struggles of adolescence. 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. In , Earnshaw's Infants' and Children's Merchandiser , a leading publication of the children's clothing industry, devoted a column to what it called the "subteen world," describing the "subteen" as "half-girl and half-woman" — bold yet demure, sassy yet chaste.
Thus began the gradual yet persistent sexualization of girls: the selling of girls, to girls, by advertisers, the media and, one might argue, their parents. The infamous Calvin Klein ads featuring Brooke Shields, then 15, epitomized the union of youth and sex. 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. Five years earlier, at the age of 10, she posed for provocative bathtub photos. 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.
A decade later, Gossip Girl bestowed those privileges upon teenagers. 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. When Paris Hilton's sex video leaked in , right before her first reality TV show, The Simple Life , aired, sex was so integral a part of American pop culture that the scandal boosted her career, much like a hot music video would have a decade earlier. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that between and , the number of sex scenes on TV nearly doubled.
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.