MIA: How do you explain this image to a little girl?


A few months ago, I saw this image that Rihanna posted on her Instagram account and I was overcome with a deep sense of despair:

‘Badgalriri’ is Rihanna’s official Instagram feed where she posts pictures of herself. And for those who don’t speak gangsta, what Rihanna is saying in the caption above is that she’s grateful to Prada designer Miuccia Prada who sent her the crotch-high boots as a gift. The photo was taken in the popstar’s bathroom.

Understand? Instead of a handwritten card or even a quick text to say thank you for the boots, Rihanna sent Miucca a photo of her bare arse, via the world.

It’s really, really hard to write this post without sounding like a nana. A wowser. A killjoy. A prude. Or even a hypocrite. It’s really hard to avoid accusations of slut-shaming or moral panic or hysteria over a ‘harmless’ photo. Look, it’s Rihanna’s bum, therefore it’s her absolute right as a woman….as a FEMINIST to Instagram it, bare, clothed or bejazzled, yeah?

Well sure but this isn’t actually about Rihanna’s bum. Not for me. For me, it just felt like the final straw, one of those moments where you say “stop the world, I want to get off.” Because do you know where my mind instantly went when I saw this photo? To my daughter. She’s 7.

She doesn’t yet have Instagram or internet access and I’ve become one of those parents who don’t allow magazines in the house but I know it’s only a temporary reprieve. I know it’s only a matter of time before images like this will become the visual wallpaper of her life, just like it already is for my nieces and my god-daughters.


It’s inevitable. In fact, the onslaught has already begun because my daughter can read and she watches TV and she walks around in the world.

And I know that she’s taking it all in.

More and more often, I actually visualise myself standing in front of my little girl like a human shield, intercepting an endless, explicit and aggressive stream of imagery hurtling at her from media, music videos, movies, mags and TV shows. All of these images scream the same message: to be valued as a woman or a girl, you must look sexy. Pretty. Hot. Alluring. All the time. At every age.

Like this:

And as the mother of a vulnerable little girl who is soaking up the world around her, it’s making me feel sick. And powerless to stop it.

And, yes, panicked.

For how long can I feasibly shield her from this ugly message? The protective walls I’ve built around her are already porous. Our house is full of Princess paraphernalia; wall to wall busty babes with hand-span waists and flowing hair.

Even the fabulously feisty Merida from Brave had a compulsory sexy make-over (smaller waist, bigger boobs, lower cut top, lots of eyeliner, lose the bow and arrows) before being allowed to join her fellow Disney Princesses.


This sparked widespread condemnation from her creator along with exasperated parents all over the world. As feminist columnist and mother of two girls, Caitlin Moran wrote last week about Merida’s make-over: “I’m going to say this very calmly and very quietly – but if people don’t stop trying to make everything sexy, I will burn this planet. I will watch it burn to fine black ash, so help me God.”

I feel exactly the same way.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a woman looking sexy if she wants to. Hell, I’m on the cover of a magazine this month in leather hotpants.

But for girls, looking sexy is not portrayed as being one aspect of being female, it’s presented as the ONLY thing of value.

We listen to a lot of pop music in our family. My daughter tells me her favourites are Adele and Taylor Swift and for that, I send up a small prayer of thanks to the gods of pop culture. At least she’s not leaning towards Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or Ke$sha.

Soon, however, she will probably will. They make some great music and like every young girl trying to figure out how she should look and behave, no doubt my daughter will follow these popstars on social media, watch their video clips and be exposed to the very adult way these singers portray themselves, way before she’s an adult herself. And for every male popstar who turns her head (she’s already asking me who Justin Bieber is), she’ll see an accompanying music video with sexy young girls writhing around in their roles as half-naked eye candy.


Here is the #1 song in Australia at the moment. I absolutely love it. And then I saw the video [warning: explicit]

Apparently, the jaw-dropping sexism in this video is ‘ironic’, according to singer Robin Thicke (he’s one of the three male singers – all fully clothed) so it’s totally fine. Got it?

And don’t even get me started on the accessibility of porn. Basically, the day your child or someone they know gets a smart phone, they have unlimited access to porn. This is something our generation never ever had to deal with.

In a thought-provoking post on Mamamia published here yesterday, author Duncan Fine loudly cautioned against the culture of ‘moral panic’ that sees us blindly condemning everything from ‘Call me’ underwear to Beyonce music videos as contributing to the sexualisation of girls.

Partly, I agree. I’m often uncomfortable when that term is used to lump together issues as diverse as pedophilia, teen magazines, internet porn, body image, sex education, air-brushing, department store catalogues, teenage models, ear piercing, baby beauty pageants and kids’ crop tops.

And as Duncan quite rightly points out, it’s hard to argue against anyone who claims something is promoting the sexualisation of kids because what creepy person wants to DEFEND something that sounds so abhorrent.


And yet.

I understand why some parents and commentators use that emotive term in reference to so many different things. It’s because when you’re trying to be the gatekeeper of all the adult information coming at your kids it can feel like you’re facing a tsunami of messages explicitly telling them that being sexy is everything.

Particularly our daughters. I feel less freaked out about it when it comes to my sons because society shows them many different images of what it means to be a successful man. I know, increasingly, there is too much emphasis on the physical for boys too (body image is an increasing area of concern for boys who are now being marketed to in the same way as girls with airbrushed images of digitally created physical ‘perfection’ which usually involves tanned, hairless, incredibly buffed bodies).

Hamish Blake

But there are still many many examples of what it means to be a man or a boy that relate to what you can DO not just how you look. Adam Goodes. Bill Gates. Hamish Blake. Mark Zuckerberg. Jay-Z. James Packer. Charlie Pickering. Joel Madden. Dave Hughes.

A more diverse looking bunch of blokes, you couldn’t find.

But for girls? It’s all about looking one type of hot and there’s no respite.

Victoria’s Secret models are on the news not infrequently. The NEWS.


Duncan Fine makes another very important point:  ‘child sexualisation’ and the amorphous issues around how children are portrayed in the media must be clearly quarantined from the concrete scourge of child sexual abuse and pedophilia. None of the issues mentioned here can in any way be held responsible or even said to promote pedophilia. As Duncan notes, “paedophiles have a sick fixation with children looking like children – not like adults. And, horrifically, the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases take place inside families.”

When parents talk about sexualisation though, and express fear and concern and outrage, I think they’re expressing something else, something more nuanced than the word implies. I know I am.

It’s not so much about actual sex and it’s not about sexual abuse. It’s much bigger than that. I’m angry and frustrated and appalled at the way my children – particularly my daughter – are being bombarded by a single message: your value as a person is directly indexed to how sexy you look. And looking sexy is not only desirable, it’s become the baseline expectation of normal at an earlier and earlier age.

And frankly, that scares me stupid. Is it moral panic? Yeah, I do swing between panic and despair sometimes. Like when I see Rihanna’s bum and imagine my daughter seeing it as part of the wallpaper of her life, where it’s ALL she sees of what it is to be a woman reflected back to her by the world.