Over the past seven years, my kids have struggled with hyper-sexualized advertisements splashed across the freeway. It started with H&M’s huge billboard with a woman in lingerie, draped on a bed, looking hungrily into the camera. After several trips past the billboard on the way to school, my 9-year-old son finally confessed that the ad was making him uncomfortable. He asked if we could avoid it, so we changed routes.
The next school year, we ran into the same problem with an advertisement for Gossip Girl that featured a high school student mid-orgasm. Even though my 7-year-old daughter didn’t know the word “orgasm,” she absolutely understood that the imagery was sexual and it commanded her attention. “I can’t help but stare at it,” she stated. We changed our route yet again.
As if I didn’t have enough to worry about just trying to get three children dressed, fed, and off to school on time, I now had to constantly change my route to avoid pornographic advertisements. But I did it. And that wasn’t all I did. I painstakingly talked these ads through with my kids. We discussed what they meant, what they were trying to say, and who they were trying to say it to.
We also talked about the physical reaction such images could produce in people, even children. It wasn’t one conversation. It was an ongoing dialogue in which they were free to ask questions and air their concerns without judgment or condemnation. The plan wasn’t perfect, and it was received differently by each child, but listening to them now — seven years later — I know it had an impact.
This week, the notorious Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue hit shelves and once again, hyper-sexualized images are front and center for our kids to view. Thankfully my children are all in double digits now because if not, chances are one of them would have asked me to change grocery lines to avoid the magazine cover. Why? Because cover model Hannah Davis is taking down all pretense of modesty. Her shaved loins are just a sneeze away from full exposure. My kids’ responses to the cover vary a bit, but they’re all in agreement that it does neither women nor men any favors.
“The image is too much,” my 16-year-old son said. “It’s available to kids of all ages. It’s not right.”
When I asked my 11-year-old daughter to look at the image, she exclaimed, “Oh dear!” Then she sighed deeply. I asked her what she thought the cover said and her response was a question, “Have they ever had a male on the cover in the same kind of pose?”
My 13-year-old daughter who has worked as a model herself said:
“She’s a beautiful woman but it’s too low. There is no reason for her to pose that way, and it’s not flattering. When you push a boundary that far, the focus isn’t on the model. You are sacrificing an inch to take this whole photo to a new level. As a model I would want the focus to be on how beautiful people thought I was, not on the photo pushing a boundary.”
I started conversing with my children about sexuality in an age-appropriate manner back in preschool. I believe that practice is why my kids have been able to articulate to me their reactions to ads and entertainment from the get-go. But as my kids remind me all of the time, “We aren’t normal, mom.”
Unfortunately many kids don’t have the words to express such thoughts and/or don’t have an open dialogue with their parents to be able to share their concerns. Instead they are internalizing these images, grappling alone with the emotional and physical responses their young minds and bodies experience as a result of exposure to such adult content.
Years of sexually charged and objectified imagery without education or discussion, mixed with puberty, peer pressure, and a camera phone connected to the Internet, all shaken up in a mind that has yet to see full frontal lobe development seems like a recipe for sexual disaster. Yet adults are quick to complain and criticize young people for their early sexual exploration, inappropriate sexual sharing on technology, and overtly sexual attire.
Gee, I wonder where they got these ideas in the first place?
Think about it. Repetition is the key to mastery. That’s what we‘re told as parents and why we speak and demonstrate lessons to our kids to help them internalize our acts. Well, guess what folks. With the advent of portable media alongside traditional magazine covers and billboards, our children are getting increased exposure to sexual content.
Image after image, situation after situation, these occurrences are repeated until they’re solidified in their minds and internalized by their psyches. Our kids are being overloaded with stimulation that they don’t have the capacity to discern on their own. Moreover, they don’t have trusted outlets for which they can consistently seek proper guidance and support. They then act on that stimuli and mimic what they’ve seen, heard, or read, just like they’ve done with everything else they’ve been exposed to in their young lives, exactly as we have taught them to do. Yes “taught,” because passivity is still an action.
Something’s gotta give. Either we need to start talking and teaching sexuality early and often, or we need to pull up on the modesty reins of the content that’s accessible to our kids. Because continuing down this path of boundary-pushing may sell more magazines and command more time slots, but it will also render the innocence of childhood null and void. And really, childhood is too priceless to sacrifice for an ad campaign.More On