The effect of media images of sexed-up girls and women posing as adolescents

February 21, 2007 | By | 13 Replies More

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.”


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Education, Psychology Cognition, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Devi says:

    My daughter is a strong, independent woman and thinks for herself (some things parents teach do actually take), and she is teaching her daughter to do the same. When my granddaughter was 4, she and her mom were in a home improvement store and the child saw a display for a princess-style room makeover, and thought she just had to have that. My daughter refused, and the child insisted that my daughter explain why. After a fairly lengthy tirade/commentary about the image of a woman/girl being the passive figure that waits in some ivory tower for a prince to rescue her rather than taking charge of her own fate (picture this discussion in the middle of the large home improvement store, child in the shopping cart and mom getting rather animated), after my daughter stopped talking, my granddaughter said quietly. "Mom, not everything is about feminism."

    Pretty funny, but in reality, from a woman's perspective, most things are about feminism, whether we realize it or not.

  2. Phillip Winn says:

    Boys and girls *are* different. I work hard to ensure my children have every opportunity and are aware that nothing should be off-limits to them solely due to their gender.

    And yet my girls still prefer traditionally girly things and my boy still prefers traditionally boyish thing, and they have from day one. It's more pronounced with the girls than the boy, though.

    I still ensure that they're all involved in activities normally aimed at one or the other, but I'm not sure where my kids picked up these ideas. They don't watch TV, they don't go to school, etc. It really does seem innate somehow.

    Of course, I can't convince anyone of this unless it happens to them. Devi's grandaughter's desire for a princess makeover may or may not have been prompted my cultural cues. I'm pretty sure a good portion of mine aren't.

  3. Arch Stanton says:

    Your kids don't watch TV or go to school? Chances are they will wind up being socially abnormal anyway.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I received this email from a friend who teaches psychology at the university level:

    Thanks for the post about APA's report on the sexualization of girls. As you may or may not be aware, I'm teaching Psych of Gender this semester. I will pass the APA link along to my students.

    Incidentally, we covered a few chapters of Reviving Ophelia last Wednesday, and on Friday we talked about Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Kindlon and Thompson. The timing of this task force report couldn't be much better.

  5. I am also the father of two daughters, ages 16 and 9, both of whom play serious basketball (the eldest plays for the top high school team in the state). Basketball has been fantastic because the ideal body image it creates is one of someone who is fast, strong, and in shape. The focus is on what the body can do, not on what it looks like. Avoid sports like gymnastics where are particular type of body is required. I know this is an oversimplification of a very difficult issue, but I do see sports as a potential solution.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    China Blog: Pipher and Ross recommend exactly what you suggest (as one solid strategy). They specifically recommend serious involvement in sports. Other options they suggest are music performance skills, academics or serious involvement in other activities where one's daughter is working hard to achieve something rather than dressing up and seeking approval of others.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Projektleiterin: These videos are incredible and disturbing. Almost unbelievable. Makes you want to somehow rescue these children from their screwed-up parents.

  8. Some people shouldn't have kids. I also include parents who think their kids are not fat, but just a tiny bit chubby. Britney Spears is just an example what can happen if you have rotten parents. She is crazy, no doubt, but also a quite sad product of her parents.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    In a May 20, 2008 interview published by, Katharine Mieszkowski interviewed Gigi Durham, who has written a book entitled: "The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It."

    Q: What do you think is the relationship between the sexualization of young girls in pop culture, and the actual sexual exploitation of children?

    A: I think it's quite troubling that many of the highly sexualized images we see in fashion and beauty magazines use bodies of 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls. Maddison Gabriel and a lot of the models are very, very young. . . .

    I think in a way this mainstreaming of very young girls as sexually desirable objects is one side of the more illegitimate child pornography industry. I almost think that it tacitly condones it. Children are now being trafficked in large numbers for sexual purposes. I do think that there is a connection there, and I think we ought to be disturbed by this.

    Q: Are you advocating censorship of sexually provocative media images of young girls?

    A: I am absolutely opposed to any form of censorship . . . [W]hat I call for is the opposite of censorship: I'd like to see more discussion, more public debate, and more discourse around issues of sexuality. What I'm trying to do is increase consumer consciousness so that people — including kids — can better understand and control their media environments.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    "7-year-olds don't need padded bikinis. That's what the British clothing line Primark learned after it was lambasted by children's advocacy organizations for introducing a sparkly pink-and-gold bikini, complete with cleavage-boosting cups for the tween set. Primark removed the top from the racks yesterday, apologizing and donating any profits from the teeny-weeny bikinis to a children's charity."

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Check out the phrase "age appropriate or not" in this post and video. Sorry. I think this is way over the line for the same reason I disapprove of beauty pageants for young girls. Regardless of talent.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    “While waiting for my mom to get out of the fitting room at Target . . . I started walking toward Juniors. (Juniors is generally inclusive of teens 13 through 19, although it may, depending on the store, cater more to the upper or lower wedge of that age group.) It was while walking past the Intimates aisle that I noticed every single bra on the Juniors rack was a pushup. Even a bunch marked “Sport” were, which seemed to defy the real purpose. Whether plain black or garishly multicolored, every single one was designed to create illusory cleavage. I have nothing against padded bras in general. But my immediate thought in the store was, Why the hell does a teenage girl need one?”

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