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The Negative Consequences of Sexualization of Girls

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 26th 2007

You are probably familiar with the provocative images and sexual descriptions of women that commonly appear in advertisements, music videos and song lyrics. What you may not know is how early the media begins bombarding us with these negative images and depictions of girls and women. Take a stroll down the aisles of the closest toy store. Nestled among the stuffed animals and Playdoh, you will find small vinyl poseable dolls (I am omitting their brand name, as I don't want to provide free advertising for this company) with heavy makeup, bare stomachs, stiletto heels, and miniskirts. It is disturbing enough that these dolls are very popular with girls. What's more upsetting is that these dolls are marketed toward 4- to 8-year-olds!

According to a recent report released by the American Psychological Association (APA) [] repeated exposure to highly sexualized messages and images (which suggest that someone's value comes only from their sexual appeal or behavior) can harm the self-image and healthy development of young girls, teens, and women. These sexualized images can also decrease self-esteem, self-confidence, and lead to shame, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

As a both a clinical psychologist and a mother of a 6 year-old girl, I am very concerned about the powerful effects of the media and popular culture on our attitudes, behavior, and self-image. It would be naïve of me to wish that marketers would remove all sexualized images and depictions of women from their products and advertising campaigns. We all know that sex sells. However, we can take an active role in ensuring that sexualized information is not the only message being received by our children. The previously mentioned APA report ended with some good strategies for parents (as well as teachers, friends, and family members) such as:

  • Teach girls to value themselves for qualities other than how they look.

  • Teach boys to value girls as friends, sisters, and girlfriends, not sexual objects.

  • Repeatedly remind children that it's wrong to judge people by their appearance.

  • Pay attention to what children are looking at, listening to, and buying. If you don't like something, don't just forbid it, but discuss your reasoning.

  • Discuss with children why there is so much pressure on girls to look a certain way and to act "sexy."

  • If your daughter wants to wear something you consider too mature or too sexy, have another discussion. Point out that skimpy clothing is high maintenance (requires lots of checking/ adjusting), and can detract from her focus at school, with friends, and during other activities.

  • Support campaigns, companies, and products that promote positive images of girls; conversely, do not support manufacturers, advertisers, television and movie producers, and retail stores that promote highly sexualized images of girls and women.

  • Encourage children to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities that emphasize talents, skills, and abilities over appearance.

  • Discuss healthy sexuality and relationships with your kids, including media, peer, and cultural influences on sexual behaviors and decisions, as well as how to make safe choices. Find out what your child's sex education curriculum includes.

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