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The Sexualization of Girls
Sex sells, we are told, and everyone is interested in selling
something. So sex is everywhere. Everything from television shows to
movies to ads for the most mundane products seems to have sexy women
doing sexually suggestive things. We barely notice anymore how
pervasive sex is in our culture.
The prolific use of sexual images of girls and women in
advertising and media is called sexualization. It occurs when:
- A person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal
- Physical attractiveness is defined as being sexy
- A person is seen as an object for another person's sexual use,
instead of an independent person
- Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person
The American Psychological Association (APA) released a
report earlier this year about the harmful effects of sexualization
on our young girls. We know it occurs yet we shake our heads and go
on with our daily lives.
But the scary part is that it's not just women who are being
sexualized. Girls are being sexualized, too. They're swamped with
sexual images and the message that they should look and act "hot."
Here are just a few examples:
- Bratz dolls dressed in short skirts and fishnet
- Clothes designed for girls in elementary school that show lots
of skin (even thong panties!)
- Beauty pageants where even preschool girls wear makeup and
vamp for the audience
- Barbie® dolls and Disney heroines with large breasts, tiny
waists and sexy clothes
- Magazines for preteens with articles on how to lose weight and
look sexy in order to get a boyfriend
- Music marketed to teens (and younger children) that is full of
sexual language and lyrics that are demeaning to women
According to the APA's report, sexualization may negatively affect
- Making it difficult for them to concentrate on schoolwork and
other tasks because they're distracted by how they look
- Causing emotional problems, such as shame, anxiety and
self-disgust. Sexualization is linked with the three most common
mental health problems in girls and women: eating disorders, low
self-esteem, and depression.
- Creating unrealistic and/or negative expectations about
sexuality and interfering with normal, healthy sexual development
as girls grow into women.
- Encouraging girls think of themselves purely as sexual
The sexualization of girls can have an impact on society in
general. It encourages sexism, discourages girls from pursuing
careers in science, math, and technology, and it increases sexual
harassment, sexual violence and the demand for child pornography.
Nobody wants this to happen. The APA report recommends that more
research be conducted that focuses on the extent of sexualization of
girls by the media and how it affects them.
So what can parents do? We need to work with the media to
encourage them to show more positive, healthy images of women and
girls. If they won't do it voluntarily, then we need our government
to step in.
We need to create alternative images of girls that they can look
up to and that speak to who they are rather than how they look.
Images of girls participating in sports or school clubs, or doing
community service, help them understand that they're more than sexual
objects. Schools should teach "media literacy" skills to families and
students so girls can learn to look more critically at what they see
and realize that they don't have to believe or buy into the
images they see.
Here are some other suggestions for parents from the APA
- Tune in and talk. Watch television with your daughter,
look at her magazines, surf the Web with her and then talk about
what you see. Talk about the images, how they make her feel, and
how she might think differently about them.
- Question choices. If your daughter is choosing outfits
that seem sexy to you, say so. Talk about how concern about her
clothes (and how much skin she's showing) can distract her at
school. Help her make different choices.
- Speak up. Tell your daughter why you don't like certain
music lyrics, dolls, videos, television shows or other things
she's exposed to. The sexualized images are so prevalent that she
may not realize there is anything wrong with them.
- Put yourself in her place. You were a tween/teenager
once, too, and wanted very badly to fit in. Saying no to anything
sexualized may not be realistic, but you can help your daughter
make the best choices possible.
- Encourage. Help your daughter get involved in
activities that emphasize talents, interests, and physical
activity rather than appearance.
- Educate. Teach your daughter about sex; give her
information about healthy, safe sexual relationships.
- Be real. Whenever you can, talk with your daughter
about not judging others by their appearance. Do everything you
can to support her as a unique individual.
- Be a role model. Think about what you watch, what you
say, and what you wear. Make sure you are sending the right
We can make a difference by working together. Hopefully, the APA's
report will be the call-to-action we all need. Our daughters' futures
and the future of tomorrow's women depend on it.
© 2008, Claire McCarthy
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is a
senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications. She is an
instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending
physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and co-director of the
pediatrics department at Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood
health service of Children's Hospital. The author of two books,
Learning How the Heart Beats (Viking, 1995), and Everyone's Children
(Scribner, 1997), Dr. McCarthy was a regular columnist for Sesame
Street Parents Magazine from 1995 to 1998 and currently is a
contributing editor for Parenting Magazine.
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