Spray tans, make-up and padded bras for pre-adolescent girls are some of the heavily marketed products that promote a sexualised appearance for girls in modern society.
While the sexualisation itself is a concern, equally worrying is that girls are sending provocative - and indelible - images of themselves and sometimes others via mobile phones, digital cameras and social networking sites, according to Winthrop Professor Donna Chung at The University of Western Australia.
Professor Chung, who will give the 2012 Grace Vaughan Memorial Lecture on "The Sexualisation of Girls and the Digital Age", said that media targeting girls such as magazines, pop music, television, digital applications and games emphasise particular sexualised forms of femininity for girls. These associate girls' worth with their being attractive to the opposite sex and sometimes envied by female friends.
"The origins of this are from the US where the idea of ‘tweens' was first promoted as a new market for sales," she said. "Concern about what is a sexually attractive body and attire is shifting back earlier and earlier so that very young girls are becoming concerned about their appearances. This is heightening peer pressure and dividing girls who rank themselves and their cohort according to body image and sexual awareness.
"What we're seeing is part of wider trend where females are expected to be sexually attractive in a very particular way over a much wider period of the life course - beginning with pre-pubescent girls and extending at the other end of the age spectrum to mid-age women".
The community and governments had been increasingly concerned about the sexualisation of girls which has led to changes by businesses, Professor Chung said. At the same time there had been the emergence of categorising women as ‘yummy mummies', cougars and the more explicit term MILFs (‘Mothers I'd Like to XXXX) which had received far less criticism and in - the case of ‘yummy mummies'- was presented as an aspirational status for women with children.
This categorised girls and women who got the message that they needed to be sexually attractive from a very young age and to stay that way for as long as possible.
Professor Chung, who is UWA's Winthrop Professor of Social Work and Social Policy, said the digital age made these messages more available and gave more girls access to a wider world of trends.
"It's a hard gig for parents, many of whom work and are exhausted," she said. "We have to look at this problem realistically and give parents a strategy that they can implement in the everyday world."
The free Grace Vaughan Memorial Lecture will be at 6pm on Thursday 15 March in the University Club Theatre Auditorium. RSVP to GVL@communities.wa.gov.au