It's about time we stopped this sexualisation of young girls
Thongs, Playboy pencil cases and role models like Miley Cyrus with her sexually explicit videos and dance routines – is it any wonder that young girls today seem to be losing their innocence?
Standing on the edge of the dance floor, I peered enviously at the girls bopping to Beyonce and Girls Aloud, feeling a pang of jealousy at their stylish outfits. They were wearing skimpy little dresses I'd seen in shops but couldn't afford, and towering heels that I'd never be able to walk in. The strange thing was, though, these girls were only 12 – and I was a 21-year-old woman.
I was a nanny at the time, helping out at party. I'd expected the dress code to fall somewhere between floral tea party and awkward attempts at adolescent attire. I was shocked by how sophisticated and sexualised, these kids' outfits were.
Miley Cyrus's now infamous "twerking" performance at the recent VMA Awards caused a slight media frenzy, and her latest music video – in which she can be seen suggestively licking a sledgehammer and swinging naked on a giant wrecking ball – has also met with shock and criticism. It's not that sexually explicit imagery hasn't always been part of popular culture; it's more about the fact that Cyrus – who just a few years ago shot to fame as fictional schoolgirl pop star Hannah Montana – is adored by pre-teen girls the world over.
But even before the twerking furore, for a good few years now, shops have stocked thongs, push-up bras and adult-like high heels for girls as young as seven, and parents can purchase stationery for them featuring the Playboy logo.
In 2010, psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos carried out a review which reported that, while sexualised images have always appeared in the mass media, there's been an unprecedented rise in recent times.
She pointed out that these images carry messages about how young girls should look and behave.
It's a subject which also worries Melissa Benn, a mother of two and author of What Shall We Tell Our Daughters: The Pleasures And Pressures Of Growing Up Female.
"The sexualisation of girls is starting much younger," she says, adding that when girls are young, they're less aware of how the world views them. "That's a very important part of their development; it's a time when they are free to have a range of interests."
But capitalism and commercial pressures, she says, are taking away that freedom. So why have these changes come about, and in such a relatively short space of time?
Benn believes that, commercially, young girls are a new market which has emerged partly due to parents' increased responsiveness to their needs, and also because of the rise in working parents whose guilt makes them more likely to buy their kids presents. Another big factor is the internet. Research by the London School of Economics found a third of nine to 10 year olds go online every day, and 93 per cent of nine to 16-year-olds use the web at least weekly.
Often, they'll be doing this unsupervised, and though they may not be purposefully looking for sexual content, they could encounter it anyway – a YouGov survey found that a quarter of young people have received unsolicited pornographic junk mail or instant messages.
An American Psychological Association report stated that sexualisation and objectification can reduce body confidence, leading to feelings of shame, anxiety and self disgust. It also found that sexualisation's been linked to three of the most common mental health problems for females – eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Is it any surprise? When you're bombarded with images of unrealistic women, a grown adult can feel inadequate.
"Research shows young women know the images aren't real, but they still feel bad about their own bodies," says Dr Maddy Coy, deputy director for the Child And Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University.
Bryony Kimmings, a live artist, felt so strongly about the lack of non-sexualised role models for young girls that she created one herself – with the help of her nine-year-old niece, Taylor. The result was a fictional character – Catherine Bennett (www.catherinebennett.so) – a palaeontologist and pop star who "loves tuna pasta and reading, writing songs about polar bears, doing Taekwondo and hanging out with friends" and, vitally, isn't pouting at cameras dressed in next to nothing. She showcased the character at this year's Edinburgh Festival; her Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model show went down a storm.
Coy and Benn both agree parents have a role to play and they think how sex education's dealt with in schools should be addressed, too. Some MPs are doing their bit – Diane Abbott's fighting for a purge in "sexualised imagery" in public spaces, while David Cameron has spoken about making the internet safer for children. These are all, potentially, positive steps that could reverse this uncomfortable trend. And I, for one, am backing them all the way.