Last week’s spectacle of eight and nine year old girls gyrating to “Single Ladies” is still eating me. And to be honest, I’m still not exactly sure why.
What’s the big deal here, really? Isn’t this just another grating example of girls’ sexualization, fodder that seems to arrive weekly? And who cares if some little girls want to try some big girl dancing? As one of the girls’ parents told Good Morning America, the outfits are “actually no different than when kids are going swimming — they go in the swimming pool with a bathing suit. These kids are going to a dance competition and they’re wearing dance costumes in front of a dance audience.”
So, like, isn’t this the same thing as getting a pedicure with Mommy or tottering around in her spiked heels?
No and no. Thrusting your pelvis, crouching seductively and shaking your butt like a stripper are inherently sexual acts. And if their bodies didn’t make the point, the clothing surely did. This wasn’t just dancing – it was erotic dancing.
When it comes to growing up, sexuality is a sacred part of the developing self. While almost all of us experiment sexually, should seven year old girls’ first experiences be quite so explicit and public? It’s one thing to try on your mom’s heels, and it’s quite another to do it for an audience. As a You Tube commenter wrote in the girls’ defense, the kids don’t even know what they’re doing. Exactly — that’s the point and my concern.
Let me be clear: the sexual part isn’t the problem – girls are sexual creatures from the get-go. The problem is that these girls are adopting an expression of sexuality that isn’t really theirs. It’s not discovered or sought out in response to internal desire or curiosity.
Moreover, the dancing introduces girls to an experience of sexuality that is being defined for them by a media conglomerate. It’s a product sold by the constellation of financial interests that stand behind Beyonce. These are hardly people invested in the safe and healthy development of girls’ sexuality. And the girls are a ways off, cognitively and developmentally speaking, from being able to look critically at the media they’re mimicking.
The Single Ladies debacle set off a pandemic of parent judgment, but sexuality educator and author Dr. Logan Levkoff calls foul. “What disturbs me is that this was made public, and in turn, has created the perfect storm of hypocrisy. In our own homes, we laugh off girls’ burgeoning sexuality. In public, we scream and yell and finger wag. (Both are incredibly problematic.)”
The sexualization of girls cuts girls off from authentic desire and emotion by pressuring them to regard themselves as objects, and encouraging sexuality as a performance for others. In their 2007 report, the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that early sexualization of girls is linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. The APA defines sexualization as when:
• a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
• a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
• a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
• sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Only one of these conditions must be present in order for sexualization to occur.
So I’m thinking about these very talented girls, and what it was like to get up on that stage and do that routine. The roar of crowd approval (and the resulting You Tube frenzy) was no doubt a thrilling rush. Was it only about the dancing? If those girls had done a rip-roaring Balanchine suite, would it be viral You Tube material? The attention teaches them a destructive lesson: be sexy and be valued. All at the age when, speaking to GMA, they have lingering baby talk in their voices.
The irony is that dance is actually a powerful vaccine against sexualization. Dance can tether girls to their bodies and emotions in transformative ways. In March, I watched the young women of the Roots dance troupe move in front of over 300 high school girls. I have never seen women own their bodies the way they did. It was clear that they danced first for each other and themselves, and then for the audience.
They were no less erotic than the girls in the Single Ladies video, but they were erotic on their own terms. They were erotic in the sense that the late, great Audre Lorde defined, using a “power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.” This kind of erotic exists on “a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” This kind of erotic “is not only a question of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
During the Q & A that followed their performance, the Roots troupe explained to the girls that music video dancing is just one way to be sexy. The kind of dance most publicized is the one that flush record companies can bankroll — so it’s the only one most girls see.
And that’s the real problem for me. Girls are being sold a narrow idea of sexuality and the erotic that is based primarily on how you appear to others. This kind of dance is about being seen and consumed first and foremost, and less about what comes from within.
We have become desensitized to sex, just as we have to violence. Kids’ elastic bodies and intrepid physical risk taking make them capable of extraordinary athletic feats. But just because you can wrap your leg behind your ear doesn’t mean you should.
For more information about girls’ sexualization:
So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect their Kids by Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin.