A girl protests a child beauty pageant hosted by the U.S. company behind "Toddlers and Tiaras" in Melbourne, Australia.

Editor’s Note: Melissa Henson is the director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. Watch Henson on CNN’s “Newsroom” live at 2:40 p.m. ET Tuesday.

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Melissa Henson: TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" promotes sexualization of toddlers, girls

A 3-year-old wore a padded bra and buttocks, another dressed as a prostitute

Henson says girls' exposure to hypersexualized media is harmful in many ways

She says TLC should be ashamed for promoting images of sexed-up toddlers for ratings

CNN  — 

TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” has been mired in controversy since it debuted in 2009, and much of the distaste for the series stemmed from concerns about whether we were feeding the stage mothers’ desire for attention, or about the insensitivity in taping and televising children in the middle of a meltdown or temper tantrum. But whether you think child beauty pageants are just a chance for little girls to play dress-up, or a training ground for superficial, self-centered princesses in the making, everyone should agree that sexualizing a 3-year-old little girl is wrong.

In what was likely a misguided effort to gin up publicity and ratings for the show, TLC released footage of a 3-year-old contestant dressed as the prostitute played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 film “Pretty Woman.” This stupidity came just one week after TLC – still known to many as The Learning Channel – was forced to pull its Facebook page because of the deluge of negative comments over an episode that featured a little girl dressed up to look like Dolly Parton, complete with padded bust and buttocks.

Instead of creating ratings-friendly buzz, TLC engendered outrage among millions of parents and grandparents, who are tired of seeing children exploited for ratings and robbed of their innocence by a greedy entertainment industry that will stop at nothing to make a buck.

Like Roberts’ film character just before she hits the streets, the toddler is shown strutting back and forth on stage wearing thigh-high PVC boots, a blond bobbed wig, and a white tank top connected to a tight blue skirt at the midriff by a large silver hoop.

Melissa Henson

Common sense is all too often a casualty of the media culture we live in. Parents assume the sexual content and innuendo in the programming they are watching will go over their child’s head, or think it’s cute to dress their child in sexy clothes or encourage her to imitate Beyonce’s dance moves so they can post it on YouTube. In reality, they are teaching their children what kind of behavior will help them get noticed.

For years we’ve seen adult sexuality being inappropriately and aggressively foisted on innocent young children, but kids today are being sexualized at younger and younger ages. A decade ago, parents worried about their teen daughters coming home from the mall with hip-riders. Now parents have to combat marketing forces that are telling their third-graders they need to have a padded push-up bikini top, or their second-graders that they need to have shoes that promote fitness, but are the same shoes sold to adults to tone and shape buttocks and thighs. Where does it all stop? What have we come to when toddlers, not yet able to read, let alone make decisions for themselves, are getting schooled in dressing and acting sexy for adults?

Everyone in society suffers when children are sexualized, but those hurt worst are the children themselves. In February 2007, the American Psychological Association released a report on the sexualization of girls that found that girls’ exposure to hypersexualized media content can negatively impacts their cognitive and emotional development; is strongly associated with eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression; leads to fewer girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and causes diminished sexual health.

But it’s not just our daughters who are being affected by these images. Boys and adult men are also learning to value women only for their sex appeal, which the report says can lead to increased incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and increased demand for child pornography.

TLC’s official “no comment” response to a question from CNN about the outrage is ridiculous. Executives are not only complicit in the act of sexualizing toddlers, they are unwilling to own up to their role in encouraging this kind of behavior.

The product that TLC, a mainstream cable television network, is selling is sexed-up toddlers. They should be ashamed, and parents across the country should renew their commitment to teach their children that they are valued for who they are, not for how sexy they look.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Henson.