Last night I decided to watch The Sex Education Show in the hope that it might provide some food for thought of a bit more substance than the recent edition of Panorama, entitled 'Too Much Too Young' focusing on the moral panic over 'girls growing up too fast', 'sexualisation' (which now seems to be the accepted shorthand for the whole phenomenon) and high street stores selling 'inappropriate' clothing.
Coverage of this issue on television and in the media has been problematic for a number of reasons. Take the comments of the mother on the Panorama documentary, who was concerned that her daughter wearing short skirts and 'showing her legs' would lead to an underage pregnancy. Or the tabloid headlines which labelled Primark's padded swimwear for seven-year-olds as the 'PAEDO BIKINI'. The fact that the outrage exclusively focuses on girls, the way they might behave or the things that might happen to them as a result of liking or wearing certain clothes or being exposed to sexual imagery, rather than addressing the issues in the ways they affect boys, looking at the wider problems surrounding the way we view sex and relationships as a society, or asking the girls themselves what they actually think about it all. The way it practically demonizes sexuality at an age where children are probably going to be having a lot of questions about it and getting a lot of messages from society which are pretty confusing to them.
As I'd expected, The Sex Education Show went down the usual track of hand-wringing about miniature heels and bras, then filming 'stunts' which involved entering and protesting at 'guilty' stores such as Primark and Matalan, something which was particularly unproductive.
What struck me, perhaps over anything else, was the huge double standard which exists in all this media coverage and all these documentaries. People are horrified that young girls might be 'pressurized' into wearing heels or makeup or padded bras or showing themselves to be sexually 'available' and 'raunchy', despite the fact they're only seven, or 10, or 12. It's taking away their innocence, leading them down the wrong path, making them focus on the wrong things. Many people interviewed about it all have said that they want their daughters to be interested in a diverse range of pursuits, like sport or science or music. This is all great.
But the moment these girls pass the point where they're no longer considered 'children' any more, everything changes. As women, they'll no longer be expected to shun padded bras and makeup and an obsession with being attractive as 'inappropriate'. It will be become a requirement. If they have small breasts they'll constantly receive messages from shops and the media that they need to look more 'curvy', 'create the illusion of cleavage' and possibly have surgery to get the perfect figure. If they show up at the office without makeup on or in flat shoes, they might be asked to do something about it. Women's magazines will tell them how they should modify their behaviour in order to attract - and 'keep' a man. There's still the ridiculous stereotype, in some quarters, that men don't like 'brainy' women.
In short, if the 'too much too young' culture is going to change, this change needs to happen from the top down.
Young girls seek to emulate famous women, their mothers, their older sisters. If they see that these women's lives are controlled to a massive extent by diets, looking conventionally attractive and personal grooming, what choice is there for them? They are learning from a very young age that our society teaches women they must live up to certain standards in order to gain approval and be a 'real woman'. Who is helping them to see through this? If they hear their clothes being blamed for negative attention or harassment they might receive from the opposite sex, where does this leave their self-esteem in the face of victim-blaming? If they're told that sexual activity and curiosity at a young age is bad, but don't receive comprehensive, careful and thoughtful education and advice about it from their schools, friends or parents, they'll only end up confused further, especially when the moral panic is exclusively targeted at one gender.
I'm sure that we're going to continue seeing a great deal about the problem of 'sexualisation' in the news and on television. What this coverage needs is a more rounded and balanced perspective on the issues involved - and acknowledgement that they will not go away unless we stop expecting grown women to live this way while condemning girls for doing the same things.