Clothing stores sell thongs for seven- to ten-year-old, some with slogans like "wink, wink" or "eye candy." In child beauty pageants, girls as young as five wear fake teeth, make-up, and hair extensions, and are encouraged to flirt with the audience by batting their false-eyelash-laden eyes. The 2005 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show on prime time television featured models made up to resemble young girls dressed in sexy lingerie. Magazines, television, and the internet abound with images portraying girls and women as sexualized objects. There is growing evidence that this sex-saturated culture harms healthy psychological development among both boys and girls.
Sexualization is not to be confused with healthy sexuality, which is important for mental and physical health. Sexualization occurs when:
- a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy
- a person is sexually objectified & made into a thing for others' sexual use
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person
Professionals and parents have been growing more aware and concerned about the sexualization of girls and its consequences. In response to this concern, the American Psychological Association established the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, consisting of six psychologists and a member of the public, in February 2005. More than two dozen other psychologists contributed to the report through comments and reviews.
The task force's report was recently published by the American Psychological Association. In it, the authors define sexualization, describe how it takes place, describe its effects on girls and society as a whole, and recommend positive alternatives. Their findings and recommendations have implications for families, schools, organizations, and professionals that work with children and youth, and government policies.
Cultural contributions to sexualization of girls
The average child views over six hours of media per day. Among prime-time television shows popular with children and adolescents, 12% of sexual comments involved sexual objectification, the vast majority directed toward women. Other research showed that 23% of sexual behaviours observed on prime-time programs involved leering, ogling, or catcalling at female characters. Many comments concerned body parts or nudity, and 85% of the comments came from men. Up to 81% of music videos contain sexual imagery, the majority of which sexually objectifies women by presenting them in revealing clothing, as decorative sexual objects, dancing sexually, or in ways that emphasize body parts or sexual readiness.
Similar patterns of sexualization and objectification are present in song lyrics, movies, and magazines. Some researchers have observed that even among animated Disney movies, contemporary heroines (The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas) are 'sexier' than some of the historical characters (Snow White, Cinderella).
In sports media and other media, female athletes are more likely to be portrayed as sexual objects than male athletes. Eight female Olympic athletes were featured in the September 2004 issue of Playboy.
Dolls designed for 4- to 8-year-old girls, such as the Bratz or Trollz dolls, are clad in sexualized clothing such as mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas, with accessories such as 'magical belly gems.' 'Sexy' clothing such as thongs and lingerie is now manufactured in children's sizes and marketed to tweens, defined by some stores as girls 7 and up. The cosmetics industry markets perfumes, lip glosses, and other toiletries to young girls.
Fathers' attitudes are particularly powerful influences on gender typing and whether or not children conform to this typing. Current culture stresses the physical attractiveness of thinness. The 'thin ideal' is thus related to the sexualization of girls, and is often reinforced in mother-daughter interactions.
There is also a trend for an increase in parents condoning plastic surgery for their daughters. Since 2000, the number of invasive cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States on teens 18 or under has increased 15%, to 77,000.
Research has shown that teachers encourage girls to play "dress-up" more than boys. This type of play often involves vamping and looking in mirrors. Some work has shown that teachers have negative attitudes toward girls whose bodies do not conform to the thin ideal.
Girls are marked by boys as sexual at an early age, independent of the girls' behaviour. Girls enforce conformity with ideals of thinness and sexiness. Negative sexualization of teen girls by peers, for example by characterizing them as "sluts" is used as a form of social aggression among peers. Popularity of girls is based in part on physical attractiveness and a precocious interest in boys.
Sexual harassment perpetrated by boys and men in schools and in the workplace is a common form of social aggression. Girls as young as 10 experience sexual harassment at school. Pubertal development leads to increased sexual harassing comments for girls, in turn promoting increased feelings of shame about their bodies. Sexual abuse, the most damaging form of sexual harassment, has a lifetime prevalence rate for women of between 15% and 20%.
Girls contribute to their own sexualization through their choice of clothes and behaviour. This arises out of a desire for social advantage, for example popularity, and out of fear of social
rejection if they do not make these types of choices. The focus on physical attractiveness as a method of self-improvement and social success is more prevalent in the last 20 years than previously.
The authors of the report make clear that girls do not make these choices independently; they are bound up in the cultural and interpersonal influences that surround them.
Consequences of the sexualization of girls
The sexualization of girls and women has far-reaching consequences. At the individual level, there are negative effects on cognitive and physical functioning and mental health. Negative consequences are also experienced by women, boys, men, and society at large.
Sexualization affects girls
Objectification theory is a psychological theory that directly explains the mechanism by which sexualization influences the well-being of girls and women. It combines socialization, sociocultural, cognitive, and psychoanalytic approaches, arguing that girls' observations of the world lead to self-objectification and self-sexualization. The process involves adopting a third-person perspective, assessing and controlling the sexual desirability of one's own body to others in terms of culturally given standards of attractiveness, rather than on the basis of one's own desires, health, competence, or achievements. Forces leading to the sexualization of girls influence their development in particularly vulnerable periods. Cultural messages about sexuality impinge on children too young to cope with them and influence identity formation during early adolescence, contributing to a loss in self-esteem during this critical period of identity development.
The consequences of this self-objectification are far-reaching, disrupting cognitive and physical functioning. The authors describe one striking study in which college students were asked to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While waiting wearing the swimsuit or the sweater, they completed a math test. Girls wearing a swimsuit scored significantly worse than those wearing a sweater. No such effect was present for boys. The implication is that attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources to complete other tasks.
The constant monitoring of appearance leads to feelings of shame. Feelings of shame arise from a perception that one has failed to meet cultural standards of conduct. Few girls meet the dominant cultural standard for a slender, sexy appearance, so it is not surprising that feelings of inadequacy and shame are widespread. Studies have also demonstrated that exposure to idealized models of sexual attractiveness in media such as fashion magazines leads to body dissatisfaction among girls. In extreme cases, body image dissatisfaction leads teenage girls to undergo plastic surgery procedures such as breast implants and liposuction for reduction of fat in the hips, belly, and thighs. It also contributes to the success of the cosmetics and beauty products industry. In the US, girls between the ages of 12 and 19 spent of $8 billion on these products and services.
Three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression, have been linked to sexualization. The incidence of anorexia nervosa in girls 10 to 19 over the last 50 years has tracked changes in fashion, with the ideal of a thin body type preceding the highest incidences of anorexia nervosa. A number of studies have demonstrated the links between media exposure to idealized women and depression and reduced self-esteem.
Dr. Gail McVey, scientist and psychologist at The Hospital for Sick Children, has observed through her research that girls as young as 10 are resorting to extreme weight-loss techniques in attempts to mimic the bodies of runway models. In addition to the media, girls face additional pressures such as appearance-based teasing, peer pressure to conform to the thin ideal of beauty, and sexual harassment. Girls learn through the process of socialization to base their self-worth on their appearance.
Healthy sexual development is also disrupted by sexual objectification. Evidence shows that exposure to and identification with media portrayals of women is associated with more negative attitudes toward breastfeeding and the functional aspects of one's own body. Media exposure also influences perceptions of sexual experience, including virginity and first sexual experiences. In one study, the most powerful predictor of love relationships among undergraduate women was amount of exposure to MTV.
Sexualization affects boys and men
Sexualization of girls also has a negative impact on boys and men, leading to less satisfaction with intimate partners' attractiveness, jeopardizing the ability to empathize with female partners, and interfering with the ability to form and maintain intimate relationships.
Sexualization affects women
Women are also negatively affected by the sexualization of girls. As a culture, we have accepted the supermodel as the ideal of feminine beauty. Many of the most famous models have become renowned by the age of 16. Boundaries between girls and women are blurred in the media, with women 'youthified' and girls 'adultified' in a range of sexualizing portrayals.
Holding the ideal of youth as the only beautiful stage of life has put pressure on women to look younger, resulting in unprecedented growth in the cosmetics and plastic surgery industries, and has led to age-based discrimination related to women.
Sexualization affects society at large
The sexualization of girls and women has been linked to broader societal consequences such as sexist attitudes, sex bias, and sexism by a range of studies showing correlations between development of sexist attitudes and exposure to sexualized imagery in media. Exposure to sexualized content affects perceptions and judgments about women and influences how men and women behave and respond to women.
One of the most significant effects of sexualization and sexual objectification is that on the aspirations and educational achievement of girls. Girls appear to be learning to prioritize male attention over academic accomplishments. Concerning career choices, they are caught in a double bind. If girls choose a male-identified profession such as engineering, they are less preferred as romantic partners (in college samples), and if they persist in these professions and happen to have a 'sexy' appearance, they run the risk of being perceived as less competent.
Sexual harassment in school and in the workplace and violence against girls have been related to sexist beliefs and sexualization. One study focussing on 11- to 16-year-old children found that greater exposure to television and R- and X-rated films was related to greater acceptance of sexual harassment.
Counteracting the influence of sexualization
The report of the task force concludes with a section describing positive programs and approaches to counter sexualization and a series of recommendations. Three broad domains of activities are described that can take place in schools, within the family, and through working directly with girls and girls' groups.
Schools can implement media
literacy programs and comprehensive sexual education; focus activity on physical activity and athletics that stress action, agency, and competence; encourage participation in extracurricular programs such as music, drama, and games that stress development of a talent or skill; and provide alternatives to activities that emphasize beauty, thinness, and sex appeal.
In the home, parents can watch television with their children and engage in discussions of the portrayals of women, stereotyped relationships, and aggression. Organized religion or other forms of ethical instruction, a strong sense of spirituality, or the practice of meditation often originate with the family and can serve to contact effects of media representations and other negative social forces. Parents and families can become activists by, for example, opposing media sexualization of girls through grass-roots techniques such as letter-writing campaigns. For more tips, visit the American Psychological Association website.
Alternative media such as online magazines or web logs (blogs) can provide a forum to help girls critically examine the sexualizing images and media portrayals of girls and women. Girls can organize as groups to protest sexualization, develop critical perspectives, and lobby for social change in the public sphere. Several studies have shown that girls of color are able to resist mainstream portrayals of female sexuality and beauty through oral traditions and as a byproduct of parents teaching their children about racism. In the United States, research has shown that black women often feel better about their bodies than white women and reject Eurocentric ideas of beauty. Other work showed that Latina girls and women rejected cultural imperatives of motherhood and virginity, and were angry with sexism, labelling, and the lack of sexuality information available to them.
Taking the message to a wider audience
The Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls is an important document. It surveys research that characterizes the social forces that result in sexualization and sexual objectification of girls and women and demonstrates the negative impact these forces are producing on the healthy development and achievement of our girls, the adjustment, mental health, and behaviour of men and boys, women and men, and the health of society as a whole. The report provides an agenda for action, and specific recommendations for future research, clinical practice, education, public policy, and enhancing public awareness of these issues. Accessible summaries of this report would make excellent materials for health, current affairs, and social studies curricula across the grade ranges in public schools.