As I gear up for my 8th summer here in Phoenix, I’m reminded of a couple of lessons I’ve learned over the years that have helped me cope with the heat: 1) a shady parking spot is worth the extra walking and 2) you can enjoy the outdoors as long as there’s water. With the latter lesson in mind, I recently took my kids to play in the splash pad at a nearby outdoor mall. If you are unfamiliar with “splash pads,” they’re basically play areas where kids can run through water fountains without feeling embarrassed that your kids are running through a water fountain. They’re designed for kids, and in Arizona, one would think that having a business located right in front of a splash pad would be prime real estate. Especially if your target market includes kids, like for instance if you’re selling candy….
So when we set-up shop at the splash pad, I knew there was no getting out of a trip into the bulk candy store located right in front of the play area. I happen to like candy as much as my little ones so it required very little persuading for me to agree to this treat. When we eventually made our way over to the shop, It’Sugar, my oldest daughter mentioned that she wanted to see “the ladies.” I didn’t know what she was talking about until we walked through the doors and I saw three racy manikins dressed in candy clothing. And I use the term “clothing” loosely here. I think one was meant to be in a bikini and the other two in lingerie. I recognize that it’s not everyday that my kids see people wearing candy, so I tried to focus on the novelty of the material, rather than the maturity and questionable appropriateness of it. But as we were paying and getting ready to leave, I couldn’t believe my eyes…So I snapped this picture on my phone and hustled the kids out the door.
Those little hands in the bottom right hand corner of the picture belong to my 5½ year old. Why am I allowing her to browse through the pornographic candy aisle?? I’m not! Those candy bars were lining the CHECK-OUT COUNTER!
I was so upset when I left the store - mostly because I didn’t say something to the manager. So the next day I went back – without kids. When I expressed my concern over the fact that such adult themed candy was displayed right in the pathway of any kid walking into the store, the manager kindly acknowledged my concern but told me that while they are a “candy store” they’re merchandise is for kids and adults. When I mentioned that they were located right in front of a kids’ play area, he said “I see what you’re saying, but we didn’t have anything to do with the splash pad going into that location.” When I asked him if the items located at the check-out counter could be moved to a more discrete area of the store, he told me “no.” He said he had no control over the location of merchandise and couldn’t move things around because those decisions came from “corporate.” He then encouraged me to contact them, which I did. You can read my email here, but all I really wanted to say was, “I don’t understand how you think this is okay.”
There are many researchers, journalists, child advocacy organizations and parents out there who are much better suited than I to speak about the hyper-sexualization we see in our culture today and the serious and negative consequences it has on our children. Awareness raised by these activists lead to the formation of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls and the creation of a comprehensive Executive Summary which acknowledges that “ample evidence indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and attitudes and beliefs.” You can check out the full report here, and I strongly recommend getting involved with the work of Peggy Orenstein, Melissa Wardy, SPARK a Movement, and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) – just to name a few.
But what I can say on behalf of myself and the work we are doing on the Sanford Harmony Program, is that overexposure to sexual images and ideas affects how girls and boys think about each other and greatly impacts relationships later on. In the words of Diane Levin -Professor of Education, author of ‘So Sexy, So Soon,’ and founding member of the CCFC – “the problem is not that children are learning about sex; the problem is what they are learning about relationships.”
We want our kids to develop healthy and innocent friendships as children – friendships that allow them to learn and grow while cultivating positive communication, problem solving and relational skills along the way. Feeding our young kids a steady dose of sexually explicit content will only make things tremendously difficult and impossibly uncomfortable for them to come together in healthy, balanced relationships. And while this issue seems daunting, we can affect change by putting into action some of the recommendations that came out of the APA report : Complain to manufacturers, advertisers, television and movie producers and retail stores that “sell sex” with their products targeting children, and support campaigns, companies and products that promote healthy and positive images of girls and boys.