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The sexualisation of star kids damages our teens too

Ajay Devgn’s outrage over the trolling of his 14-year-old daughter Nysa for an outfit she wore is understandable. The objection, however, seems to largely be over the harshly critical nature of the comments, which were mostly along the lines of “she forgot to wear her pants”. Yet, no one, including Devgn, seemed to bat an eyelid in December last year when Nysa attracted great ‘praise’ for a picture of her body silhouetted against a sunset sky.

 The sexualisation of star kids damages our teens too

The bikini picture of Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana (left)

“Ajay Devgn’s daughter Nysa Devgn’s swimsuit photo sets the internet on fire” said one headline. “She’s a stunner! Nysa’s jaw-dropping swimsuit photos are unmissable” gushed another. It’s the sort of thing you might expect from perverts lurking near a YMCA swimming pool, not mainstream entertainment media.

Today, many of us are quick to condemn ‘shaming’, but when ‘nice’ things are said, and the sleaziness is implied rather than overt, we are A-OK with it. It has become normalised for the media to package celebrity children as sex objects and for us to consume them as such. We justify it to ourselves as publicity for the youngsters that is perhaps driven by the famous mummy or papa themselves—after all, in dynastic Bollywood, the next generation needs ‘exposure’ to take up the mantle.

But what are we exposing our own children to when we let them loose on Instagram or free to browse the endless galleries dedicated to star kids on bona fide news websites?

A celebrity culture perpetuated by the media, consumers, and the celebrities themselves that endorses the sexualisation of minors can damage not just the underage ‘sex symbols’ themselves, but also the children who witness it, and the culture at large. In a paper titled Too hot to handle: The psychological impact of sexualisation in the media, Melbourne-based developmental psychiatrist

Louise Newman described the sexualisation of children and adolescents as the “imposition of adult models of sexual behaviour and sexuality” on minors “in ways that imply a child’s value is dependent on conforming to a particular appearance, sexual display or behaviours”. Newman also emphasised that “premature exposure” to such material negatively impacts children psychologically, especially their “self-esteem, body image and understanding of sexuality and relationships”.

The issue is compounded by social media and the boundaries it blurs. Thanks to platforms like Instagram (kids 13 and above can join), teenagers today have an open window into the lives of celebrity kids. There are sites that tell teens how to replicate the ‘looks’ worn by star kids—even Nysa’s infamous airport get-up (described as “rocking a sweatshirt like a dress”).

Teenagers today are more likely to identify with celebrity kids and aspire to be like them, since they are technically their peers. Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal, Dr Stephanie Ng of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine says, “because social media features peers… exposure (to sexualised teens) may generate even more social comparison and body shame than traditional media”.

Our children get to observe not only sexualised images, but they are also privy to the social media discourse around them. Ng points out there is empirical research that “corroborates the notion that while sexualization of females is rewarded online (usually by males), females are also punished for these same displays and are quick to be labelled by other female peers as ‘sluts’”.

Disturbingly, the cultural perception of women in revealing clothes as somehow deficient in character extends to minor girls as well. University of Melbourne researchers Elise Holland and Nick Haslam found over the course of two studies that girls dressed in revealing clothes were seen by others as being less intelligent and moral. They were also less likely to receive help “in a bullying scenario” and were more likely to be victim-blamed.

Clearly, the objectification of girls contributes not only to mental health problems but to rape culture as well. It sends out the message that a girl’s looks matter more than her abilities and that if her appearance does not meet the mark in some way, she is fair game for abuse. Unfortunately, there are no convenient parental controls on any tablet or phone for these messages.

Asavari Singh is an editor with a background in gender and psychology

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 13:29:19 IST

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