According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association,
Inescapable media images of sexed-up girls and women posing as adolescents can cause psychological and even physical harm to adolescents and young women.
According to this APA report, the pressure of this “sexualization” can lead to depression, eating disorders, and poor academic performance. See, also, Yahoo’s article on this report.
What are the sources of these images? The report points to these examples:
Advertisements (e.g., the Skechers “naughty and nice” ad that featured Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails, with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop), dolls (e.g., Bratz dolls dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas), clothing (thongs sized for 7– to 10-year-olds, some printed with slogans such as “wink wink”), and television programs (e.g., a televised fashion show in which adult models in lingerie were presented as young girls).
It is difficult to not notice this modern smearing of the boundaries between female childhood and adulthood. Our media is obsessed with presenting images of women acting like little girls and little girls forced to act “sexualized.”
What’s the difference between “sexualization” and healthy sexuality? According to the APA report, “sexualization” occurs when
a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
I’m really not a prude. I am not concerned about exposure to many kinds of sexual imagery. I agree with the APA, though, that exposure to “sexualized” images creates an environment that leads young women to overly-connect their sense of self-worth with that peculiar sort of product-laden version of sexuality promulgated by the media.
As the father of two young daughters, I do have a special interest in this topic. I’ve worked hard to fight off the ubiquitous notion that girls are to be like princesses, passive and beautiful. I tell my daughters that there’s no need for them to play games where they stand around waiting for a prince to say the dragon. They can slay that dragon themselves. I ask my daughters (now 6 and 8 ) “What can’t you do that boys can do?” The answer (I know, it’s not technically precise): Nothing!
That’s not how many parents of young girls see it, however, at least not in my neighborhood. Based on birthday parties and play activities organized by many parents, girls are different than boys and they need to be trained in their special roles from day one. That is what the APA study found too:
Societal messages that contribute to the sexualization of girls come not only from media and merchandise but also through girls’ interpersonal relationships (e.g., with parents, teachers, and peers). Parents may contribute to sexualization in a number of ways. For example, parents may convey the message that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal for girls. Some may allow or encourage plastic surgery to help girls meet that goal. Research shows that teachers sometimes encourage girls to play at being sexualized adult women or hold beliefs that girls of color are “hypersexual” and thus unlikely to achieve academic success.
I’ve personally observed all of the above. I have especially noted this onslaught since I became a father of daughters.
This is amazing in 2007. We would not tolerate this over-emphasis on looks for boys and men, where we put accomplishments and character first. Why do we put our daughters at risk by inundating them with these images? Oh, yeah. Because these images are compelling in a visceral way. They help merchants to sell things.
The APA report reminds me of a terrific book on this same topic: Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross. To grossly oversimply the book, the problem is that adolescent girls “crash into junk culture.” The solution? To “build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized and more growth producing.” More specifically, need to resist the call of our culture to “become ultrafeminine.” Young girls will better survive teenaged peer pressure to flounder if they work hard to become successes in ways that their peers might not necessarily value. In fact, “smart girls are often the girls most rejected by their peers. Ironically, “this very rejection gave them a protected space in which they could develop their uniqueness.”