The sinister side of cuteness

2011-02-11 10:34

Weaves, false eyelashes and nails aren’t the territory of adults any more. As a growing number of parents swops rompers and playgrounds for salons and catwalks, MOKGADI SEABI questions what effect this cultivation of miniature fashionistas has on the kids who lose out on a traditional childhood

Their make-up looks like it has been applied at a MAC counter while their big coiffures resemble that of cast members from 1980s night-time soapie Dynasty. The fake nails and eyelashes finish off the doll-like image.

Turning children into miniature adults is a trend once reserved for child beauty queens. But no longer.

According to psychologist Dr Antonio Lentoor: “The sexualisation of children involves the imposition of adult models of sexual behaviour and sexuality on to children and adolescents at developmentally inappropriate stages and in opposition to the healthy development of sexuality.”

From Soweto and Gugulethu to KwaMhlanga and Camps Bay, it’s common to see little girls dressed as up (or down) as their parents.

While I was visiting a relative in Soweto, the brother of her beauty queen neighbour dropped in, pushing their baby sister in a pram. The adorable nine-month-old sported a couple of curly extensions on her half-bald head. It was creepy.

Recently, an email with the subject line: “Someone please call 10111 Khanyi Mbau Junior” (sic) was doing the rounds, showing a picture of a child about six with freshly styled hair extensions and false nails.

Makoto Seleke from Pretoria, whose daughter Neo is six, says: “There’s no way I’ll let my child go around with hair extensions. Braids are fine but once you weave the hair, you cross the line.”

Johannesburg-based Farrah Fortune agrees. “My daughter is five and I would never allow that. I was 17 when my parents allowed me to wear make-up for the first time.”

Ten-year-old Willow Smith, daughter of Hollywood A-list couple Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith has already carved a niche for herself as a fashionista.

While other children her age worry about homework, Willow was rocking duds on the front row of Milan Fashion Week last year.

And actress Katie Holmes has been under fire for years for her habit of treating daughter Suri Cruise to professional hair and nail dates, as well as clothes and shoes that are deemed too mature for a toddler.

Children are constantly exposed to sexual imagery and parents often do not even realise it.

For instance, teen sensation Miley Cyrus, who children the world over idolise for her Hannah Montana series, was the same girl who posed for Vanity Fair magazine draped in a bed sheet, hair tousled and giving the camera a come-hither look.

According to Lentoor, there is growing evidence that premature exposure to adult sexual images, roles and values has a negative effect on children’s psychological and cognitive development.

“It may have a particular effect on the development of emerging models of sexual behaviour and relationships, which also feeds into the child’s inability to develop their self and sexuality. It contributes to girls defining their self-worth and popularity in terms of sexual attractiveness, with a negative effect on self-esteem,” he says.

Clinical psychologist Dr Aharon Segal points out that more research needs to be done?but?“from a psychological point, the developmental effect of sexualisation of children will largely depend on the motives of the adults surrounding them”.

He argues that there is no reason to suspect that a child enjoying the attention they get from participating in movies, magazine ads and beauty or talent shows is susceptible to emotional problems, provided that these undertakings are done in the correct spirit and that the child enjoys them.

However, the psychologists agree that it is important for parents to impose limits and restrictions on their children’s lives. “Being a model does not imply that they are ready to lead adult lives and so the usual meal and bed times and homework schedules should still apply,” says Segal.

Lentoor?says:?“Children should be encouraged and allowed to be children and socialise with children their ages.”

He also urges parents to “monitor media exposure as we live in a popularised era where image and looks are viewed as more important”.

As one parent, Gen Lubane comments: “Our responsibility as parents is to protect, provide and teach, yet we allow media to do that for us. Let us groom our kids the way we want them to be and we’ll smile later.”

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