The Sexualization of Girls

The sexualization of girls is a widely pervasive and ever-increasing problem that comes with a strong cost to girls. Virtually every media form studied provides ample evidence of the sexualization of women, including television, music videos, music lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, the Internet and advertising (Zurbriggen, 2007). There are multiple examples of sexualization of young girls: Large department stores sell thongs sized for girls as young seven years of age, and the ever-so-popular Bratz dolls are dressed in sexualized clothing, including fishnet stockings and miniskirts. If you have not watched MTV lately, you might be surprised at the pervasive sexualization of girls in daily programming. This is even more disturbing, given the fact that more than 40 percent of its viewership is under the age of 18. Actual music videos have taken a back seat to other programs in recent years, but when MTV does show videos, approximately 75 percent of them involve sexual imagery.

Societal messages that contribute to the sexualization of girls come not only from media and merchandise, but also through girls’ interpersonal relationships (Brown & Gilligan, 1992). Surprisingly, parents can also be a large culprit in the sexualization of their daughters through purchasing and encouraging them to wear inappropriate clothes. Parents may even go as far as to recommend plastic surgery to alter their daughter’s physical appearance to better meet societal demands. At the extreme and most destructive end of the spectrum, parents, teachers and peers, as well as others, sexually abuse, assault, prostitute or traffic girls.

Sexual objectification occurs whenever people’s bodies, body parts or sexual functions are separated from their identity, reduced to the status of mere instruments (Bartkly, 1990). It has been known that sexualization of girls teaches them that they are objects and that their value is based on their appearance. It is most likely that girls being exposed to the sexualization of women increases their chances of chronic preoccupation with their appearance.

Sexualization Versus Healthy Sexual Development

Sexualization occurs when a person’s values comes only from her sexual appeal; when physical attractiveness is narrowly defined as being sexy; when a person is sexually objectified, made into a thing rather than a person; and when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person (Brown, 2007). Self-initiated sexual exploration is considered typical, age-appropriate development and is not considered sexualization. Girls and women tend to see themselves through a veil of sexism, measuring their self-worth by evaluating their physical appearance against our culture’s sexually objectifying and unrealistic standards of beauty (Fredrickson, 1998).

The Cost of the Sexualization of Girls

The sexualization of girls has many negative effects that impact many different spheres of a girl’s functioning.

Cognitive and Emotional Consequences
Self-objectification has been repeatedly shown to affect a girl’s cognitive functioning by detracting from the ability to concentrate and focus’s her attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities, such as mathematical computations or logical reasoning (Fredrickson, 1998). Girls who are exposed to sexualization have a tendency to see themselves as sexual objects, and thus have a tendency to be preoccupied with their appearance, which significantly impacts their mental capacity. In addition, studies show that the sexualization of girls leads to other significant difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, guilt and other significant emotional difficulties. The sexual objectification of a girl’s body leads to shame about it.

Mental and Physical Health 
Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood. (Abramson & Valene, 1991).

The sexualization of girls has a significant impact on young women’s sexuality. Self-objectification has been directly linked with diminished sexual health among adolescent girls through a decrease in condom use and a decrease in sexual assertiveness (Impett, 2006).

How Can We Decrease the Negative Consequences of Sexualization of Our Young Women?

  • It is important to teach boys and girls critical skills in viewing and consuming media, focusing specifically on the sexualization of girls and women.
  • Continue to provide opportunities for young women to build healthy and stable self-esteem that is not based on their bodies and appearance.
  • It is important to view TV, Internet or other forms of the media with children to help them to appropriately interpret the messages presented.
  • Organized religious and other ethical instruction can offer girls and boys important practical and psychological alternatives to values conveyed by popular culture (Zurbriggen, 2007)
  • Overall, monitor and limit what your child is exposed to.
  • It is not only important to educate our young women of the negative impacts of the sexualization of girls, we also need to mentor and educate our boys about the negative impacts of the sexualization of women.
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