The Lolita Effect (Lessons for Girls series)

What do you think of thongs for 10-year-olds with slogans like “eye candy”? Underwear for teens with “Who needs credit cards…?” written across the crotch? Tini-Bikinis for toddlers? High heels for 5-year-olds?


Last week I wrote about what Disney princesses teach little girls, and it’s pretty scary. Except that this is only one of a multitude of ways in which little girls are socialized to be partners in their own objectification. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Teaching girls that it is more important to be pretty than to be smart (or successful/independent/fill-in-your-positive-value-here).
  • Sexualizing girls from a young age
  • Silencing. Girls are taught to avoid confrontation (so they have trouble saying and meaning NO). They are taught to please. They are taught that their role is to nurture others (often at their own expense). They are taught to apologize for having opinions. They are taught to be comfortable in support positions/the back row.

Each of these can be broken down into sub-categories, and I could probably happily spend my life writing a dissertation on each of them if I had the time and resources. Alas, all I have is this blog, but hey, that’s what I started it for. I have a feeling that I can’t begin to do justice to any of the topics in a mere paragraph, so I’ll do a separate post for each.

Part 1: The Lolita Effect, and sexualization of girls in the mainstream media.

In her book, The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham, Ph.D., discusses what pop culture, and especially advertising, teaches young girls and boys about sex and sexuality. She defines five myths that are ingrained in this culture, which make up the Lolita Effect:

  • Girls don’t choose boys, boys choose girls–but only sexy girls
  • There’s only one kind of sexy–slender, curvy, white beauty
  • Girls should work to be that type of sexy
  • The younger a girl is, the sexier she is
  • Sexual violence can be hot

She talks about how the mass media undermines girls’ self-confidence, condones female objectification, and tacitly fosters sex crimes. (Here is an in-depth interview.)

I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this – but how closely are we watching? Little girls are increasingly portrayed in mainstream media and advertising in a sexualized way, and treated as consumers of a sexualized self-image.

Remember in the late 70s early 80s all the controversy around Brooke Shields? At the age of TEN she was photographed by Gary Gross (via Playboy Press) in a series meant to “reveal the femininity of prepubescent girls by comparing them to adult women”.

Later, at the age of twelve, she triggered another media frenzy when she portrayed a child prostitute in the movie Pretty Baby. The movie included four Shields nude scenes (note: the original version of the movie with these scenes is no longer available; today’s version on DVD has edited out the nudity).

And later yet, at the age of fifteen, Shields let us know on national television, in no uncertain terms that “nothing comes between me and my Calvins”. Hard to interpret that in a non-sexualized way.


The thing is that back then, this still stirred controversy. Brooke Shields was not in any way mainstream. Let’s take a look at some of what’s being presented to little girls *these* days:

In 2006, UK supermarket chain Tesco marketed this in their online TOYS AND GAMES section with the words:Peekaboo Pole Dance Set

“Unleash the sex kitten inside…simply extend the Peekaboo pole inside the tube, slip on the sexy tunes and away you go!”

“Soon you’ll be flaunting it to the world and earning a fortune in Peekaboo Dance Dollars”.

The store subsequently removed it from the toy section and repackaged it as a “fitness accessory”, but continued to deny that it was sexually oriented. However, Tesco continued to face public outrage due to padded bras and other sexy items it marketed to young girls.

Other UK chains that targeted sexy clothes and underwear to pre-teens include M&S, ASDA, and Argos, while US retailers Walmart, and Abercrombie & Fitch also marketed push-up bras, padded bras, and thongs to girls as young as six years old. French Jours Apres Lunes markets lingerie for pre-teens. And have I mentioned Tini-Bikinis for toddlers?

Major UK retailers have since signed on to a government guideline banning such items for children under twelve (12-year-olds can still be sexualized freely). A&F, on the other hand, were pretty happy with the publicity they received (they eventually removed the word “push-up” but left “padded”).

Whether or not public pressure is applied on a case-by-case basis, there is still a very clear truth being outlined here: That there is a MARKET for this. This article suggests that 30% of clothing sold to girls is sexualized. And much has been written on how girls’ Halloween costumes are increasingly sexualized.

The fashion world hasn’t missed out on the party. This ten-year-old model featured in French Vogue in lipstick, high heels, and provocative poses has become the darling of fashion if not of parents:

Finally, lest anyone think that all this is objectionable from “merely” an ideological perspective, or that parents are being “moralistic” when they oppose this, the American Psychological Association concluded in their 2010 task force report that sexualization negatively affects girls and young women across a variety of health domains:

  • Cognitive and Emotional Consequences: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person’s confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and Physical Health: Sexualization is linked with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women – eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
  • Sexual Development: Sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

Read the full report here.

15 thoughts on “The Lolita Effect (Lessons for Girls series)

  1. The products that are being marketed to young girls really scares me! I seriously can’t believe the amount of sexualized garbage that is being marketed to young girls who don’t have the critical thinking skills necessary to actually process all that information.

  2. Wow. Totally shocking. Reading through your list of the five myths above I agree that I totally experienced the first three as true while I was growing up, but related to the last two less. However, I was a pre-teen and teenager a long time ago, and seeing those products now available shows how much worse things have got.

    I was most definitely affected very negatively by unwanted attention from boys at a young age because I developed sooner than most girls around me. I can easily imagine the damage that these kind of products/attitude fosters. I don’t understand how parents could ever allow those kind of things in their homes… but then again, I still don’t get how my sister allowed her daughter to get Bratz dolls, which I think are awful awful ‘role models’ for little girls.

  3. Hi all,
    I’m French and I recently saw the movie from ex-child model Eva Ionesco, “My Little Princess”. The movie is very autobiographic, since she tells her own story : from 5 years old, she modeled for her mother, French-Romanian photographer Irina Ionesco, who’s widely known for her erotic photographs – especially those featuring (very) young Eva.
    The movie in itself is very disturbing, but most interesting are the interviews she gave about it. I don’t have any in English at hand, but it’s really worth it.
    What she has to say is even more interesting that she experienced it herself – and all I can say is that it really did her no good.

    • I hadn’t heard of either woman or the movie — thank you so much for sharing! I looked her up, and all I can say is, well, I’m pretty speechless. I look forward to seeing the movie.

    • Actually, in the constellation of things I have trouble wrapping my mind around, that one hardly gets on radar. I doubt those kids know she did porn, and if she didn’t come to read porn to them… I’m not saying I think she’s a great role model, mind you. But I wouldn’t hold her past against her. I don’t think it’s a great idea for women to be “marked” because they are sexual.

  4. Great summary of how females are sexualized in pop culture. I write about boys and gender and I am greatly concerned about the way females are presented in cartoons targeted to boys. In programming aimed at 8-year-olds, but watched by children much younger, girls are referred to as “babe,” “hot,” and “chic.” A video promoting Lego Ninjago toys includes this gem: “We’re saving a girl. Is she hot?” ( Not to mention the barely-there clothing most of these female characters wear. (Consider the women from Young Justice as an example.

    It’s a vicious circle. Sexualization diminishes a girl’s self-worth, and it also teaches boys to judge girls based on their “hotness.” The pressure girls face from pop culture then gets transferred into their real world encounters with the opposite sex, resulting in more anxiety and self-esteem issues for girls.

    On the upside, a lot more people are talking about this issue so hopefully change will come.

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  6. Very fascinating read.
    The other day, I was actually really disturbed when I realized how even hair removal commercials are pretty terrible. You always hear phrases such as “Remove unwanted hair from that bikini line”. As a young girl watching that, you’ll get brainwashed into thinking that your pubic hair is something you should not want and that the only place it is acceptable to have an abundance of hair is on your head.

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  9. I have an 8 year old daughter who I am blessed to say that she is smart . She didn’t pick out her clothes . She asked for the little high heels 👡 in the store for her age “cause susie at school has a pair” and I told her very nicely because she did nothing wrong. I understand Susie has those kind of shoes but u aren’t ready to wear this kinds of shoes. I had two boys who are grown and having an 8 year old daughter @45 is hard in this society today. She enjoys playing with her dolls and coloring. She wants to start dance and sports. Not all boys are bad or good at the same time boys dont take home the provocative girl in high school. He might sleep with her if she allows him to or it might go further meaning the boy feeling teased so he try’s to take it. Where as I have seen high school boys take the girls in drama class or play a sport and speak out on what they want to do when they grow up because that’s who they really are looking for at the end of the day. (NOT ALL BOYS) . Some boys just don’t care. I want my little girl to stay little and sweet and worry about getting good grades and doing something positive in her life. She she gets a good report at school or good grades she is rewarded with books and dolls simple things ,not make up and thongs. Thank God I’m old enough that I have gone through good and bad times in my life. The less clothes I wore the more attention I got the more my heart got broken. When I chose to work dress different I attracted men who had jobs and were polite. I’m not saying I’m truly happy but my goal now is to be the best mother I can be for all of my children and grandchildren. If I was happy ,became happy or alone I had my fun . It’s my turn to make sure my daughter is called by her birth name not a street name
    On that note watch ur children be into everything look through their things ….because it might just save their lives.❤😊

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