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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:

 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:

According to the APA's report, sexualization may negatively affect girls by:

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 report:

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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