Walking in the mall with my young daughters I learned to play a game with them they didn't even know I was playing. It was a distraction game. The goal was to distract their attention from the many hyper-sexualized billboard adds promoting different products throughout the mall. I got pretty good at. It helped that there were plenty of gum ball machines and stuffed animal kiosks scattered throughout that I could use to focus their attention. However, I can still vividly remember the time I failed in the game. I was holding my daughters hand in the mall, she was 6 years old at the time, and before I could distract her from one of the billboards I looked at her just as she looked at the image. It was an image of an adult woman wearing lingerie and posing in an overtly sexualized way. She stared at it for just a few seconds. It was the first time, that I'm aware of, that she noticed a sexual image. It was so quick I was first tempted to think "ok its not that bad. She's young and won't even remember what she just saw."
But as much as I wanted to brush it off as no big deal I couldn't. Something deeper happened in those three to four seconds, then my daughter just looking at an ad for lingerie. The ad was telling my daughter something about herself without saying a word. It was telling her "this is what you're supposed to look like and how you're supposed to behave," not to mention a host of other harmful messages like, "womens bodies are consumable products or at least useful as objects to sell things." The fact that she was young and won't remember what she saw, instead of protecting her from the messages, only makes them more influential and powerful. She breathes them in like second hand smoke. Without a counter message she is likely to internalize these messages and make them her own. She will wake up one day believing that her primary value is to be sexy. That it's ok, even normal, to use her body to get things she wants. She'll never be able to remember a time she wasn't self-conscious about her body or why she has grown to hate it. All the while she'll think that something is wrong with herself. These are her beliefs. No one taught her to feel this way. Not that she can remember.
As a father, that brief moment, helped me realize how important my role is to counteract these messages. I know who my daugthers are and what will define them, and it's important I tell them. But its not just my daughters affected by these messages. In a hyper-sexualized culture all of our sons and daugthers are exposed to these types of identity shaping images every single day. At the mall, the store, through their social media apps, in the games they play online, the music they listen to, the movies they watch, everywhere. And if we're going to counteract these messages it's going to take more than just words. Let's not just tell our sons and daughters who they are in this world, lets show them. Wouldn't it be nice to have our messages reinforced by the cultural landscape around us, instead of negated. Wouldn't it be nice to one day walk in the mall with our children and have them inpsired by images that promote good character, instead of sexualizing their bodies.