Last reviewed and revised on January 3, 2010
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
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
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The American Psychological Association (APA) released a report 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 stockings
- 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 girls by:
- 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 objects.
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:
- 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 messages.
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.
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.