Sexualisation of tween girls - those between the ages of 8 and 12 - in pop culture and advertising is a growing problem fuelled by marketers' efforts to create cradle-to-grave consumers, says a leading professor in her new book.
According to Gigi Durham, author of 'The Lolita Effect', journalism professor at University of Iowa, a lot of very sexual products are being marketed to very young kids.
"A lot of very sexual products are being marketed to very young kids. I'm criticizing the unhealthy and damaging representations of girls' sexuality, and how the media present girls' sexuality in a way that's tied to their profit motives.
"The body ideals presented in the media are virtually impossible to attain, but girls don't always realize that, and they'll buy an awful lot of products to try to achieve those bodies. There's endless consumerism built around that," she said.
Durham advocates healthy and progressive concepts of girls' sexuality, but criticizes the media for its sexual representations.
Studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and other research organizations show that sexual content aimed at children has increased steadily since the 1990s, Durham said.
Times were prosperous, Britney Spears emerged as the sexy schoolgirl on MTV, and 'tweens had plenty of disposable income - a perfect alignment for marketers trying to expand into a new demographic.
The book, published this month by Overlook Press, is the culmination of 13 years of research by Durham, an associate professor in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, part of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Durham immersed herself in magazines, movies, TV shows, catalogs and Web sites aimed at young girls, from Cosmo Girl to "Hannah Montana." She went to junior high schools to talk with girls about how the messages affected them.
In the book, Durham identifies five myths of sexuality and provides advice and resources for caring adults who want to discuss the issue with young girls.
The myths are - If you've got it, flaunt it, anatomy of a sex goddess, pretty babies, sexual violence, and last but not the least girls don't choose boys; boys choose girls - and only hot girls.
Durham encourages parents, teachers and counselors to jump-start conversations about sexualization of young girls in the media. Ask girls to look through a teen magazine and discuss the messages. How seriously do they take them? Do they understand the profit motives, or how images can be doctored to perfection?
"There's this hesitance to talk about these issues, especially before kids reach adolescence," Durham said.