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The disappearing tween years

Bombarded by sexualized cultural forces, girls are growing up faster than ever

Push-up bras. Thong underwear. Eyeliner and mascara. Skirts up to here and shirts down to there. Bare bellies and low riders. Sexually explicit rap lyrics and racy adult television shows.

They're not just the domain of young women anymore. Before parental anger forced them off the shelves, Abercrombie & Fitch marketed a line of thongs decorated with phrases such as ''wink wink" and ''eye candy" to youngsters. In a recent survey, the steamy adult series ''Desperate Housewives" ranked as the most popular network television show among kids ages 9 to 12.

Prime-time television, with its ubiquitous commercials for Viagra and Cialis, tells youngsters about erectile dysfunction. Nielsen ratings show that 6.6 million children ages 2 to 11 watched Janet Jackson's ''wardrobe malfunction" during last year's Super Bowl. The Internet offers kids a whole new source of information on sex, including pornography. Even the children's film ''Shrek 2" contains scenes in which the honeymooning Shreks are making out, clearly preparing for sex.

Constantly bombarded with sexual images and lyrics, girls today seem to be going straight from toys to boys, without a stop at the tween years.

''The idea of girlhood as being a time of playfulness seems to have gone away," says Jill Taylor, who teaches in the women's studies department at Simmons College. ''I think the culture is pushing them to grow up faster. You see the girls and they're 12 going on 16."

Last Halloween a group of 13-year-old girls in Brockton dressed up as prostitutes, with fishnet stockings, tube tops, miniskirts, and high heels. ''We're ho's," one girl told the local newspaper. The news that a 15-year-old girl at Milton Academy performed oral sex on five older boys has prompted a wide discussion about sexualized behavior among kids. And it's not just sex -- girls today, on average, take their first alcoholic drink at age 13, according to the American Medical Association.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescent girls, says cultural forces are causing girls to grow up fast today. ''We've really lost what used to be called middle school years," says Steiner-Adair. ''It's almost like kids go from elementary school to teenagers. There's no pause."

Where there used to be separate fashions and departments for adolescent girls, 12-year-olds are now being sold the same clothing as 18-year-olds, she says. ''It's turning girls into sexualized objects at an earlier age. Who does it serve? It serves the patriarchal culture and the consumer-driven market. As a culture, we're selling sex to girls at a younger and younger age."

Magazines that are widely read by the preteen group often include posters and centerfolds of bare-chested ''hot" boys, articles on losing your virginity, and ''love secrets" of the stars adored by girls. Teen People recently ran a story about a teenager who ''went all the way with a guy she just met." It included a poll of online readers: ''Would you ever have sex with someone you'd just met?" (Yes, 19 percent; no, 81 percent.)

Parents report walking in on their children watching videos on MTV where the dancing and language are explicitly sexual. One mother told of hearing the popular song ''Candy Shop" by rapper 50 Cent -- the No. 1 song in the nation this week -- and quickly realizing it was about oral sex.

''My girls love MTV, but I hate it," says Laurie Maiden, 47, of Weymouth. ''When I see it on, I tell them to shut it off." Maiden has three girls, ages 9, 13, and 15. Though she hasn't had any major problems with them, Maiden doesn't like the way the older two -- and their friends -- dress. ''If a girl back when I was in high school wore the clothes these girls are wearing today. . . . But these girls see it all the time -- they think it's normal, the shirts with the belly showing, the low-cut neck." Maiden said she recently threw out a drawer full of thong underwear belonging to her 15-year-old.

Her 13-year-old, Corey, was shopping with her friends the other day at South Shore Plaza in Braintree. The five girls -- four of them seventh-graders, the other an eighth-grader -- said everyone they know wears thong underwear. (The trick, they said, is sneaking it by parents, who do the laundry.) They say they've been wearing makeup since sixth grade. The girls were in Abercrombie looking at skirts but didn't buy them. ''They're expensive, and it would be a waste if you can't wear them to school," said Shayna Albanese, 12.

The girls attend Chapman Middle School in Weymouth, where the dress code prohibits skirts or dresses shorter than fingertip length from the knee and tank tops with straps skimpier than three fingers wide. No words can be emblazoned on the seats of pants. Belly shirts, spandex shorts, low-cut necklines, and clothing with obscene or suggestive comments are banned.

''Our goal was to create an environment that would encourage and allow children to be successful middle-school kids," says principal Sheila Fisher. ''If you look especially at girls in this age group, they have the physical maturity of someone who is older, and the social awareness of what people who are older do, through videos, movies, and older siblings. But they really don't have the intellectual maturity to handle situations they might find themselves in, and that's a tough thing for these kids. They're growing up faster."

Asked what sort of sexual commercials they've seen on television, the middle-school girls mention Victoria's Secret bras and underwear, Viagra, and Trojan condoms. They don't believe what girls their age wear -- the belly shirts, the tight tank tops, the low-rider jeans -- is provocative. Still, Karin Nachtrab, 12, reports that ''old guys" sometimes beep the horn at her and her friends. ''It's gross. I'm like, 'Dude, I'm young.' "

Her mother, Jeannine, says she fights a continual battle against sexual rap lyrics and MTV videos. ''I won't let her buy the unedited versions of rap, but someone made her a copy of Eminen's latest album and gave it to her at school," she says.

Susan Chiavaroli, whose daughter Lauren is an eighth-grader at Chapman Middle School, is in charge of the radio channels while they're in the car. ''But it's really hard to control completely, because they can download this stuff off the Internet," she says.

The mothers say they constantly set limits on everything from clothing to music but feel they are swimming against a tidal wave of sexual messages targeting an ever-younger set of girls. ''Sometimes," says Chiavaroli, ''it's hard to find clothes in their sizes that aren't provocative. You really have to look."

Penina Adelman, a scholar in residence at Brandeis University, runs a group for girls preparing for their bat mitzvahs. She gives them teen magazines, and they discuss the articles and images. ''We really try to get them to look more critically at what is being thrown at them," Adelman says. ''We want to give them greater self-esteem . . . as an antidote to what they're being bombarded with as far as hypersexualized marketing goes.

''The attention that young girls get, a la Lolita, for walking around in these kinds of clothes and these kinds of makeup is phenomenal. The thing is, they're not old enough to even understand how dangerous this can be," she says. Adelman recalls one 11-year-old girl asking her the difference between sex and oral sex. The girl did not consider oral sex ''real sex."

Some mothers, says Adelman, encourage precocious dress. ''They love dressing up their daughters. It's like dressing a doll; miniskirts with tank tops with see-through blouses, off-the-shoulder. The mothers are recapturing their lost youth."

Leslie and Eric Ludy have just written a book with advice for parents of adolescent girls: ''Teaching True Love to a Sex-at-13 Generation." The couple, who have written eight books on young relationships, have talked to thousands of girls. ''The thing that is continually startling, no matter how many times you hear it, is how young the pressures start, especially for girls," says Leslie Ludy. ''The images in the media, song lyrics, magazines, movies, TV shows, and clothing lines tell them that the only way to become attractive is to become sex objects. This is a message that starts in elementary school. It has escalated to the point where oral sex is normal in middle school."

Ludy attributes some of the cause to product lines that target young girls. ''They'll stoop to any level to sell their clothes or their gum or whatever it is," she says. ''It's amazing how almost any product can be made sexual." The main message in the Ludys' book is to parents: Get to your kids before the pop culture does. ''Parents need to lay a foundation for what a healthy relationship looks like before the girls get bombarded by all these sexual messages," she says.

Jane Buckingham is president of Youth Intelligence, a consulting firm that forecasts trends for those ages 8 to 35. ''The girls 8 to 12 years old are growing up so much faster," she says. ''They're incredibly sophisticated, incredibly savvy, incredibly brand-conscious. I think a 10-year-old is a lot more like a 14-year-old now than she used to be, and I think a 14-year-old is more like an 18-year-old than she used to be. I think it's a hard time to be a young girl. . . . They may not be quite ready for the things being thrown at them."

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