Infantilizing Women, Sexualizing Girls By Grace Yia-Hei Kao

Should a 13-year-old and a 20-something really be wearing the same sexy, bustier-enhanced…costume?” I spent last Friday night on a double date with my husband and another couple at  a restaurant that featured a live band. We enjoyed the retro-vibe, food (fondue!), and the music, although I found myself bristling with irritation when the lead singer of the band, who was obviously channeling Betty Boop in appearance and  mannerisms, began  singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in signature Helen Kane style (picture  cutesy, affectedly nasally, and childish).  Since the critique of the infantilization of  women in  popular culture is well-trodden territory (and has even been parodied  by singer-songwriter Pink in “Stupid Girls”) I found myself wondering what had unnerved me so much. The answer is simply that my annoyance at the evening’s entertainment of yet another grown woman feigning girlish, coy innocence and thus not “owning” her power, maturity, or sexuality was precipitated by what had come in my mail that afternoon—a catalog of Halloween costumes and paraphernalia. While the catalog featured a predictable assortment of costumes (e.g., animals, superheroes, scary monsters), I was caught off-guard by how sexualized many of the costumes for girls, tweens, and teens had become. I’m talking exposed midriffs (genie costume—don’t get me started on a spin-off Orientalist critique), short flared mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, and tight bustiers (intended simultaneously to slim waists and push-up breasts). Even more shocking was how identical or virtually identical the costumes marketed for “girls/teens” and “adults” were, as seen in the examples below. Adult

Should a 13-year-old and a 20-something really be wearing the same sexy, bustier-enhanced “Queen of Hearts” costume?  Should a 4-year-old and a college coed really be wearing virtually identical (also bustier-enhanced) outfits while posing with a similar hands-on-hips stance?

                     Toddler-Child (2/4, 4/6)

According to the implicit (heterosexual) male gaze that is incessantly marketed to us, women are supposed to express their sexuality in girlish ways (notice that these adult models are costumed as children’s book characters or candy), while girls-tweens-teens are supposed to dress provocatively in ways that suggest sexual experience beyond their years. Full disclosure here: these observations are coming from someone who was once herself a girl-sexualized-for-Halloween-in-ways-she-didn’t-quite-appreciate. To give two memorable examples, in fifth grade (in the 80’s) I went as Madonna; in eighth grade, I went as what I would now describe as a sexy black cat (but thought at the time was “just a cat”).

Much Ado About Nothing?

The case of the female lead singer at my date night locale was arguably one of life imitating art or even art reproducing itself (in the entertainer’s deliberate adoption of the Betty Boop persona). However, in the case of these Halloween costumes and other examples of overly sexualized children’s clothing, we are talking about a more alarming possibility—of art imitating life—a scenario all the more frightening in light of the documented “market demand for young victims” of sex-trafficking in the world, including in the U.S. Some might contend that I am making much ado about nothing—that we should celebrate the choices of grown women who infantilize themselves for their own purposes (n.b., Paris Hilton has made millions beyond her inherited wealth doing just this), just as we should regard as innocuous girls-tweens-teens playing “dress-up” by simply donning “what mommy [or her cool aunt] wears.” Naomi Wolf, author of the international bestseller The Beauty Myth, gave an interview on April  16, 2009 where she observed that third-wave feminists in contrast to their second-wave foremothers tend to be “much more pluralistic about sexuality and personal expression and…fashion choices and much less dogmatic.”  She was not, of course, talking explicitly about the  parallel phenomena (of women infantilized/girls sexualized) described here, though one might reasonably suspect that a similar difference in judgment between second-wavers and third-wavers would apply in this case. If so, I would have to place myself as closer to the second-wave on this score. Stop the Infantilization of Women and the Sexualization of Girls Put simply, the infantilization of women cannot be reduced to mere “choice” when it takes place in contexts with vestiges of patriarchy, just as the hyper-sexualization of girls cannot be rendered as harmless child’s play when it is empirically linked to negative mental health consequences, as a task force by the American Psychological Association has recently concluded. The ethicist in me accordingly wants all people to take responsibility for their sexuality (and accordingly not feign childlike innocence) if they are to engage in acts of sexual expression or activity. And the feminist in me wants all girls, tweens, teens, and women to be comfortable with whatever authority or power they might have. This last point (about power and authority) bears underscoring, for we live in a world where discrimination on the basis of sex is still common and where sacred texts are often used to keep women subordinate (to men) as well as to prohibit women from developing their full range of spiritual gifts in positions of religious leadership.  (So-called “clobber passages” in my own Christian tradition include 1 Tim 2:11-15, 1 Cor 14: 34-35, and the various New Testament haustafeln or “household codes.”)  This is why it is so disheartening to see grown women elect to undermine their own authority through girlish regression. We are all impoverished when girls and women either cannot or will not “claim” their rightful place, either because of de jure forms of sex-based discrimination, or because they choose instead the temporal rewards of conforming to de facto gendered social norms which generally restrict assertiveness and boldness as virtues only for men.

May those who share my commitments accordingly work together to create a world in which adult women can confidently come to “own” their own sexuality, power, and authority in morally responsible ways, and where girls/tweens/teens can have the space to develop and claim the same without external pressures to rush the process.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently teaching “Feminist Ethics” to 25 MDiv/MA/PhD students. Read more about her work at her website.  
*The author would like to thank Gina Messina-Dysert, Caroline Kline, Monica A. Coleman, Najeeba Syeed-Miler, and Nathaniel Walker for helpful advice on an earlier draft of this blog.

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

42 thoughts on “Infantilizing Women, Sexualizing Girls By Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

    1. Carol, thanks for the affirmation. This is not a bad way to start the day (blogging for the first time ever, then receiving a comment–a positive one–from none other than living legend Carol Christ!


  1. Grace, I so appreciate this post. I was just at the local Target with my two year old daughter looking for Halloween costumes and was totally disturbed by what is available for girls. I also had a colleague tell me that she believed popularity was determined in her child’s class by whether or not girls were wearing provocative clothing – her daughter is ten. Certainly, there is a societal pressure here that is forcing girls – tweens – teens into becoming sexualized in order to be accepted. It is so highly disturbing. Thanks for bringing this very important topic to light.


    1. What minefields you’ll have to navigate as you parent your daughter! The crazy thing is that I totally remember what it was like when I battled my own mom about various outfits especially in junior high (“mom, it’s just a skirt, that’s how they’re made these days…”).


      1. I agree with this article its very accurate but also a lot of men are against the Infatillization of women too because say a man in 20s wants to date a girl who was 17, years ago, in my country this would not be frowned on because we didn’t view woman as Kids, now in some quarters in the media loving legal relationships like this are being criticized whilst at the same time the hypocritical and morally rephrehensible papers or womens mag that has said article also has one about how some celeb like Kylie Minogue or such was having sex at 14 with a 35 year married dad of two, and is writing about it like THATS just dandy, and is meant to titilate lesbians and men. This infantillization of women might mean perhaps not worryingly to american women that 17 year old women dating men is now deemed evil but it should worry them that then it becomes frowned on for 18 year old women to date older men, then before you know it its 21. I would say that the same media that are demonizing healthyish relationships and infantilizing women are also sexualizing pre pubesecent or early pubescent teens and I used to think this was evidence for them trying to promote pedophillia or such which made me mad but now I am not quite sure what the medias agenda is given the fact it is actually clear that the so called “mens rights groups” where at least partially right when they said that their is an agenda to make men into pervets for just liking 20 year old girls or so if they happen to be 33 even, sadly mens right groups often have their own nefarious agenda of adultalizing under 16 girls which I just can not agree with, but it is true that some of their analyzes are correct, same as the feminists analysises here are correct. TO blame “Patriarchy” or “Matriachy” however is quite missing the agenda. For their is an agenda in the media, I just cant quite grasp it as on one end healthy age gap relationships that might make one instinctively go ” thats a little iffy even though legal” are slowly being demonized, whilst at the same time we are being told to go “easy” on sex abusers who had sex with under 16 girls “consentially” on the basis they are a “celebs”, the making excuses for the sex abuses by BBC STAFF and other celebs on the one hand saying they where just “randy” and that “some 15 year old can look very attractive sic (or should that be SICK?), yet articles by the same media demonizing other celebs who are dating younger women such as a 25 year old with a 17 year old, a 44 year old with a 20 year old (yet peter andre who is 40 is dating a 23 year old and nothing is said about that… (and quite rightly so)) all this amongst a back drop of infantilizing women and “adultilizing” young teen gilrs. I used to think I knew what their agenda was, now I can see 3 different apparent agendas by the masonic estoric media 2 of which are almost opposing each other, and I’m not smart enough to know what their overall agenda is, just that,they,by god/bigbang/buddha, do have one.


    1. Amanda: wow; that product is so problematic on many (obvious) fronts, one being how impractical they are (shoes that aren’t supposed to be worn…). As if parents of babies don’t already have enough expenses!


  2. Dr Kao —
    Wow, preach it! I’ve read great related articles on this topic recently – aimed at Disney, in particular — in the New Yorker and the NYT. I’ve attached the link to the latter. Thanks for this! la


    1. Yes, the princess angle is alive and well and I know many parents of young girls who are trying desperately to contain/manage it. In parenting my two young boys, I have other minefields to watch out for (e.g., my 4-year-old’s recent obsession with toy guns), but thankfully not this one.


  3. Love this! I see the infantilization of women all the time and something about it has always seemed “not right” about it, but I never thought much of it until this post. In a patriarchal society, there are many times when you don’t recognize the perpetuation of the ultimate male fantasy. You just dismiss it as women’s choice, but is it really? This has truly opened my eyes.Thank you!


    1. Right, sometimes the power of “naming” a phenomenon allows you to see it everywhere. Just do a google search for “infantilization of women” and you’ll see that this is a phenomenon much discussed elsewhere. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  4. This mother and grandmother agrees that societal commerce in clothing that does not help to guard and cherish the expressed innocence of children is an abomination. There is a home-school movement that is driven by this in my area, as are several evangelical churches. Better yet are parents setting boundries and deciding that fight is worth fighting in elementary schools and high schools with education and modeling of appropriate clothing, language, and behavior. I watch my daughter with awe in her handling of her teens in spite of the drama, with respect given and recieved.
    Rock on Grace, rock on!


    1. In areas such as this, I see the potential for feminist “liberals” and Christian “conservatives” to agree and partner together!


    2. I think an idealized view of childhood as ‘innocent’ can be problematic–and, in fact, the very concept of relating sex to innocence/tarnishment disturbs me greatly.

      For one, it ignores the fact that children have sexual curiosity and sexual sensations. It makes these normal curiosities and explorations taboo, which does not seem a healthy way to allow human beings to become comfortable with their own body and sexuality.

      For another, it propagates the idea that sex somehow makes a person no longer innocent. As a woman who has been greatly harmed by this notion, I take issue with the concept that sex(uality) strips people of their innocence, rather than seeing it as a natural part of life that people develop into over time.

      It is also important to note that our modern conceptions of ‘childhood’ vary greatly from those of even our immediate ancestors–we didn’t idealize childhood until the early 20th century. Young teens have been having babies throughout the course of history, and were, at one point, seen as adults at that age. Though the brain may not fully become adult until the age of 25, the body becomes adult at a much earlier age, and trying to suppress teenage sexuality–and deem it inherently dangerous and disturbing–is highly problematic.

      I won’t disagree that it’s equally problematic to make clothes for 5 year olds that appeal to an adult sexuality (or to suggest that an idealized infantile sexuality is harmless to women). Pants with the words ‘bootylicious’ on the bottoms are not age appropriate. But neither is it sensible to restrict children from exploring their own sexuality, whatever that may constitute, so long as it’s not doing harm to anyone else. Children imitate so much that they see; that’s a part of growing up. It’s how they try on different personas and get a feel for their place in the world. I would suggest that we, in our discourse on childhood sexualization, take care to distinguish sexualization of children by the manufacturing and other industries (as is the case with some of these costumes and other clothing) from curious children imitating adult body language and fashion of their own accord. Exploration of sexuality in youth should not be deemed wrong across the board, although it is reasonable to criticize what forms of sexuality and sexual norms our culture indoctrinates us with.


      1. Raishel – thanks for taking the time to respond. While your comment suggests that you take me to hold an opposing view, if I understand you correctly I believe that we are more in sync than you think.

        I absolutely did NOT mean to imply that children-teenagers (or anyone less than adult) were supposed to be kept from exploring their sexuality. I totally agree with you that conceptions of childhood have varied across cultures and over time and that it can be harmful to children themselves for adults to conceptualize them as totally asexual. (As a mother raising two young boys who have been grabbing their penises since the earliest days of my changing their diapers, I affirm safe bodily exploration and do not inculcate shame in them when they do). This is why I wrote that provocative clothing in children in the ways that I describe “suggest[s] sexual experience beyond their years” (n.b., I meant to imply, whether successfully or not, not that children would have been asexual, but that the experiences they would have had would ideally register a difference in both degree and kind from adult sexuality).

        By talking about women feigning “innocence” (all the while they are dressing in costumes marketed explicitly as “sexy” or as they are donning the Betty Boop persona) I also didn’t mean to imply that they were instead “tarnished”–I instead had in mind a different meaning of innocence (the fourth one described here, – “lack of knowledge or understanding.” But clearly my intention was not perceived and for that reason alone I wish I had used a different word!

        Thanks for keeping me on my toes!


  5. and i can’t help asking if there is not a connection between what you are writing about and the discussion earlier of young women at NYU selling themselves as sexual objects to mostly older men in order to put themselves through school. if women are well-trained to see their value as residing in their childlike sexuality from such a young age and everyone seems to approve of it, the step to thinking that prostitution with older men is a good thing may not be as big a one as you and i think it is. some of these young women may also think they are “playing” a system that they don’t agree with, but that is probably more complicated to do than to think about doing, because it involves one’s own body.


    1. Yes, these questions are so complicated, aren’t they? As an ethicist, I think about them in terms of competing values: the valorization of autonomy (on the side of those who prostitute themselves), the charge of “false consciousness” on those who object to those choices, the counter-charge of “paternalism” by the first group, the counter-charge of “adaptive preferences” by other (think of “sour grapes” or Marx’s “happy (oppressed) worker”), and so forth.

      The sad thing is that the choice of young women at NYU to sell themselves may actually be a “rational” one in response to other inequalities in their lives, especially given their understanding of the value (monetary and otherwise) of their child-like sexuality (for the reasons you and I described)…


  6. The ethicist/feminist in me finds this dilemma to be fascinating and even more complicated.
    I agree that this phenomenon can not and should not be “reduced down to mere choice” especially given the interwoven intricacies of life-art/art-life imitation. As the “target market” we are perpetuating these patterns as consumers but we are also neglecting to give our young girls another way to see/express themselves and failing to demand an alternative from (in this case) the costume industry.

    The popular and perhaps patriarchal paradigm seems to give women no option where we can “own” our sexuality. What would that even look like? Where we are coy in our sexuality we are infantilized. At the same time women, who are overt in their sexuality, are interpreted as bimbos, overly-promiscuous, symbolizing temptation— a resurgence of the Jezebel stereotype. In being overtly and confidently sexual, we are objectified by male culture or accused of taking on an aggressive role generally associated with men. Where we try to erase or negate our sexuality, we are masculine-ized (think back to the pop culture analysis of Hilary Clinton), and where we are apathetic or asexual we are seen as frigid, matronly and repressed. There seems to be no place where our sexuality will not be mis-appropriated and reinterpreted by the patriarchal eye.

    For girls growing up in this paradigm, this gets confusing. For a feminist who sees, participates in and resists this paradigm, it feels entrapping. Can I honestly “own” my sexuality when I have only ever known it as a social construction within this context? How do others reconcile this?

    This problem obviously requires that we problematize these categories that women are given or assigned, in popular culture, around us and in our own lives. For me, part of where this paradigm might break down is in reconciling that, as sexual women, we are all capable of being coy, overt, comfortable, aggressive, asexual, repressed and much much more—even all simultaneously. In making choices about our sexuality we have to be vigilant of the outside influences that have shaped us and critically conscious in our assumptions about others. If we can reclaim female sexuality as multi-faceted, resistant to definition and ever-evolving, could it break down some of these gendered traps? It would make for a crazy Halloween costume, but it might be worth a try.


    1. Debbie: well-said and brilliant analysis! You are right that my post spoke of an adult woman “owning” her sexuality without providing further guidance about how this can be achieved, for there is indeed but the tiniest window of opportunity. Criticism can (and indeed often does) come at every angle. Back in my early 20s when I used to peruse through places like Sephora (a cosmetics store), I recall seeing a make-up line called “Virgin/slut.” Apparently, there can be no “safe” lipbalm or whatever, one is forced into the binary!


    2. I greatly appreciate this post. What is sexual objectification? How can we discern whether or not we are being objectified vs. merely expressing ourselves as sexual beings?

      I come at this discussion from the point of view of someone who has had a negative, personal relationship with the concept of sexuality.

      Women are, essentially, damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we try to own our sexuality, we are seen as giving into the patriarchal order; unfortunately, we have no concept of what our sexuality would look like without it.

      How do we allow for healthy sexual expression? What is a healthy sexual gaze? As a bisexual woman, I am loathe to say that appreciating the female body is inherently objectifying it. I would suggest that the fine line is this: Do we appreciate the body (male or female) as ascetically pleasing and sexually desirable, as is our animal instinct? Is that objectifying in and of itself? Or is it merely objectifying when we presume that a) that body and its sexuality constitutes the sole worth of the human being and/or b) that we have the right to not merely appreciate said body sexually, but engage in sexual behavior without consideration of the other person’s desires or feelings?


      1. Raishel – these are all great questions and I like where you are going with your answers. To go pop-cultural on you, the first set of questions you raise remind me of the different answers that feminists give to whether sexually powerful icons like Madonna should be regarded as feminist (with some saying yes, she has taken control of her life and used her sexuality to her advantage, with others saying no, if anything, she is more post-feminist, etc.)

        The Kantian dictum (or more specifically, the categorical imperative in its humanity formulation)–that we should always act in such a way where we treat humanity (whether in ourselves or in others) never merely as a means only but always as an end in itself–is helpful for me on this score, with objectification occurring when we fail to do just that. At the very least, this is a good starting place, but I would agree with you that the answers to these questions are much more complex (and might even have to be determined contextually).


  7. and rereading all the posts i recall that many of us who participated in the “sexual revolution” now wonder how free the free choices we thought we were making really were, and even if they were if they were choices that we good for us in the long run.


    1. Carol: without sounding too depressing, I would imagine that most revolutions and reforms have this character — they achieve some things (hopefully, their intended aims), and yet there will probably be an underside to them since we live in an imperfect world. I have a theology that can account for that, so there’s a part of me that can be resigned to the disconnect. :)


  8. After reading the blogs about sexualizing Halloween and children I was catapulted to the slice of American society which endorses child beauty pageants, oh they try to rebrand them as “talent pageants”…please. Living vicariously through children in this manner is just plain crazy! Parents who encourage, demand, and support children participating in beauty pageants adorned with make-up, high heels, and provocative attire and then are encouraged to “perform” for the judges in a manner that makes me turn away to pray that the children are being loved and valued for their hearts and minds too — so misguided!

    My Mom really lucked out when at eight years old I wanted to be Hunchback of Notre-Dame! Of course my prissy older sister wanted to be sleeping beauty, then a cheerleader, a sexy witch…


    1. Sharon: indeed; my post about Halloween was really only the tip of the iceberg. While the popularity of child pageants continues, my sense is that the American public started to freak out a bit about them (for many of the reasons you cite) after the Jon Benet Ramsey tragedy (given all of those photos of her, prancing around, in full make-up).

      While I can’t know for sure, it sounds like I went more your older sister’s way than your own when I revisit my Halloween costumes of yesteryear. This year, my preschooler will be Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) and his little brother and my husband and I will be going as assorted wild things. This is to say that the “sexy” era for me has ended long ago and I’m now all about G-rated costumes for the entire family…


  9. Prof. Kao, 
    So refreshing to read an academic perspective on the halloween costumes. I’ve heard comments over the years  from men and women alike that they perceive some of these costumes to be : “slutty”; “prositute-looking”; “come and get me”; just based on their perceptions (I’m sure the behavior of the woman wearing the costume has something to do with it as well!) But I do appreciate you analyzing it by comparing the outfits per age range. I agree that the outfits for the tweens/teens are similar to the adult version. One can’t help think: are these designers preparing the tweens and teens for adult costumes, making them think it’s OK  to continue to look like a young girl even when one becomes a mature, adult, woman? The other side of the argument could be it is halloween, the one time in the year people have a pass to go into their own fantasy worlds. Maybe these costume designers believe that for women the ideal fantasy is to return to a “youthful” realm. Whatever it is, it’s a gimmick, and many of these outfits can be seen in the dozens over and over again at various halloween parties, somehow they’ve succeeded..


    1. Valentina – thanks for taking the time to respond. Both of your options seem feasible to me; I especially considered (while writing my piece) your second idea–that Halloween is itself a “transgressive” holiday (e.g., living persons dress-up as if they’re dead, even straight men dress up in drag, so why can’t grown women and young girls play around normal conventions re: age-appropriate behavior). I still think there’s an element of boundary-crossing there (in fact, I’d add that that’s part of the fun of Halloween), but what worries me about the girl/woman phenomenon that I discuss is that it is not limited to Halloween alone…


  10. I am very interested in your take on how Halloween costumes are problematic for Asians (or any minority for that matter.)

    I am a senior at UT, and while Austin is known for having a very open-minded and diverse population (especially the campus population), I can’t help but notice the oppressive nature of Halloween for minorities. Obviously the stereotypical geisha outfits incite such rage in me that I hardly know what to do.

    For me, the difficulty of Halloween costume shopping is itself a reflection of the scarcity of minorities in mainstream culture. I emphasize especially the problem of dressing up as a celebrity or movie character. With a only a few options for asian movie characters or celebrities, I must expand my pool and look to white characters. Yet I feel wholly false, and even more of an outsider when I dress up a Lady Gaga or a Marilyn Monroe (not that I ever have, but if I ever did…) It just feels like a manifestation of the larger issue of exclusion–what it takes to fit into our society is precisely what excludes us from it. Thoughts?


  11. A-ha! You are the first person to have taken me up on my postcolonial critique tease. You are quite right – harem belly dancer and geisha are indeed quite popular costumes and they do contribute to the exoticization of certain cultures in harmful ways. Something similar can happen with boy costumes, too–I remember being pained as a child when little boys would dress-up as karate/kung-fu masters (with their white gis) and then make “ching chong” noises as they sliced through the air with their arms.

    I also hear you about mainstream representation of minorities and the “double shock” of dressing up as celebrities or other characters when one is not of that race (e.g., not that I ever wanted to be Alice in Wonderland, but I don’t think I could ever have pulled that off as a child with my black/dark brown hair). By the time I hit college/grad school, however, I was at a place where I didn’t mind–I even enjoyed people’s startled reactions. Case in point: I was Eve once in grad school (my boyfriend-at-the-time-now-husband was Adam) and among other things, I wore a red wig. Looking back, I enjoyed people’s double-take — an interracial Adam and Eve! And an Asian woman with red hair! How’s that for flipping people’s perception of what “Adam and Eve” (if there were ever two such historical figures) looked like! [Of course, now I look back at those costumes and think – why was I so interested in being such a provocateur?]

    I recognize that my comments here aren’t very academic or intellectual. But for what it’s worth, know that I do know firsthand of the pain of little representation or misrepresentation/caricature and that I hear you. Thanks for writing, Jenny.


  12. Grace,
    You have expressed so clearly the very things I feel when I too received those same terrible Halloween catalogs this year. As a mother of a 4 year old girl I am all the more horrified by the images and what they represent and would want to say to her. Thankfully I am still able to screen her from these images and create a different world for her, but soon enough, and probably before I want her to, she will see images like this and be influenced by other girls (thank God for my co-op that really tries to keep these things from playing out in the classroom.)

    Thank you for speaking up!


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