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Why Hollywood's infantilization of young female actresses is so problematic

Like the many women who grew up in the Hollywood spotlight, "Stranger Things" star Millie Bobby Brown has faced vehement backlash for choosing to dress more maturely, a testament to the sexism in the entertainment industry. – Photo by Milliebobbybrown / Instagram

Celebrities who enter the limelight at a young age experience both sides of the coin: blooming success and wealth, accompanied with unreasonable pressure and expectations.

Think of Disney alums Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, who lead us through our childhood into our adolescence with as much grace as they could sustain. They’ve long faced external pressure from their team and audiences to abide by a PG, innocent farce up until they’re in their late teens and early 20s.

It becomes difficult for them to grow up, and display the effects of growing up, while catering to their young, impressionable audiences. This is especially an issue for female entertainers who work in an industry with a history of sexist scrutiny and misogyny. Everything from their appearance and sartorial choices to their romantic pursuits is analyzed under a microscope that isn’t quite applied to their male counterparts.

Branching out from their breakout rules, evolving in their sense of fashion and engaging in typical young adult activities is perceived as rebellious and inorganic. For example, Millie Bobby Brown, the 17-year-old actress who stars in Netflix’s hit series “Stranger Things," has been criticized for dressing and styling herself as if she were in her mid-20s.

Brown, who rose to prominence at just 12 years old, opened up about growing up in the public eye in a recent interview.

"I'm only 17, but at the end of the day, I'm learning to be a woman. I'm learning to be a young woman," she told MTV News. "Being a young girl, people watch you grow up, right? And they've almost become invested in your growth and your journey. But they aren't ready to accept the fact that you're growing up."

She later noted that people still see her as the pre-teen girl who they first saw on their screens in 2016 when “Stranger Things” premiered, clouding their perception on what she is ethically allowed to wear.

This infantilization is undeniably hard on the psyches of young stars growing up in Hollywood, who are commodified at the age they were when they became famous. They're expected to remain stagnant in such a pivotal, ephemeral period in their lives.

Cyrus, Lovato and Gomez have all opened up about the challenges they’ve faced in the spotlight and being esteemed as role models from when they were young. Perhaps the pure, moral Disney persona attached to her name motivated Cyrus to become more sexually expressive on her fourth studio album, “Bangerz," provoking shock and dismissal from audiences.

The notions of adulthood and what it looks like to grow up can also increase pressure to show more skin. Gomez said in an interview that posing nude on the album artwork of “Revival” wasn’t exactly herself.

The singer also told People magazine that she is still haunted by the feeling that people view her as a “Disney girl" and that her experience on the network cemented her as a people-pleaser — which she said was necessary unless you were a man.

In an Instagram live video last year, Cyrus and Lovato discussed their struggles with body image, which they said were exacerbated by being young and famous.

“I remember being 12 years old and my body started changing, and I didn’t have anybody to look up to in young Hollywood at that time that had a normal body," Lovato said. "It was just looking at these stick figures because that was what was in style."

Lovato’s statement highlights the irony of expecting young women in Hollywood to maintain their young appearance and meet ideal body standards while their bodies are constantly changing.

The objectification of child stars and body image issues tend to go hand-in-hand. As they grow older, they start to become more outwardly judged for what their body looks like and how they dress rather than the quality of their work, increasing the pressure to look perfect.

Bottom line: The industry should normalize young stars growing at a normal place and displaying the physical signs of growing up rather than boxing them in a single style, role or identity. If Brown chooses to dress in crop tops and plunging necklines, that’s her decision and no one else's. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

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