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Our culture is sexualizing young girls

Last summer, my 5-year-old niece was hell-bent to persuade her mom to buy her a bikini swimsuit. So, while shopping one day and listening to the harangues, my sister reluctantly agreed to let her try one on. After wiggling all 40 pounds of herself into the wee two-triangles top and side-tie bottoms, she stared openly in the dressing-room mirror and then, never taking her eyes off herself, performed what can perhaps best be described as an exotic-erotic pole dance to show off the ensemble. It was quite a sight.

My sister and I hurried her into her T-shirt and shorts and out of the store, making lame excuses like, "One-piece suits are better for little girls; they're easier to manage." Back home, deftly pulling a tiny bikini top onto her Bratz doll, she was visibly disgruntled. She had no idea what all the fuss was about.

My sister is one of many parents, teachers, child advocates and journalists who have expressed concern in recent years over what appears to be an increasing sexualization in our culture of girls and girlhood. Because I do research on the consequences of the sexual objectification of girls and women, I was asked to serve on a committee named by the American Psychological Association to examine the prevalence of sexualizing treatment in the culture, and its consequences.

Our research was sobering. In study after study, we found ample evidence for a widespread cultural contribution, through media and merchandizing, to the sexual portrayal and treatment of girls. In some cases, we see girls sexualized through thong underwear or T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Eye Candy" and marketed to 7- to 10-year-olds. We also are presented with adult women or celebrity partiers "dressed down" as young girls, in pigtails, with their cleavage busting out of pink ruffles.

With the proliferation of media, such images saturate the culture - and the message to girls and young women is clear: Being female has become nearly synonymous with being a sexual object. And perhaps the most disturbing feature of the bill of goods sold to our daughters is the equating of sexual objectification with power and popularity.

But the media and marketers are not solely to blame. Parents often encourage the maintaining of a sexy, attractive physical appearance as the top goal for their daughters, some even paying for plastic surgery for pre-teens and teens to help them reach that goal. Girls police each other. Boys harass. And these societal influences combine to form self-objectification, or what my niece so vividly demonstrated in her string bikini. Girls come to view and treat themselves as sexual objects, internalizing an observer's perspective on their bodies, and styling their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape.

OK, but is this really that big of a deal? You betcha.

My studies and many others have shown that the self-objectification that follows carries significant psychological and physical health costs. Girls and young women who have this view of themselves have a poorer self-image, are more likely to suffer from eating disorders and depression, throw a ball less effectively, fail to use proper birth control if they have sex, are more likely to take up smoking and do worse on math tests. It would not be a stretch to say that sexualization functions to keep girls "in their place" as objects of sexual attraction and beauty, significantly limiting their happiness, free thinking, safety and movement in the world.

And those are just the consequences of the more benign end of the continuum of sexual objectification. At the more extreme end, we have child pornography, trafficking and abuse. One pernicious effect of the constant exposure to these images is that we may be "trained" to perceive sexualized girls as "seductive." Studies have shown that adult men often misperceive friendliness in women as sexual interest. We shouldn't be surprised if young girls who are made to look like adult women evoke similar responses.

So my colleagues and I take very seriously the sexualization of girls as a pressing public health concern. I fear we're fighting an uphill battle, however. The trouble is, sex sells. And pointing fingers at dolls or T-shirt slogans seems prudish and moralizing.

In a recent USA Today story, the CEO of the company that manufactures Bratz dolls scoffed at our APA report, saying that his dolls were not sexy, but rather looked like the typical school girl today. The school of what?

One of my daughters and I were riding the street car in Berlin, Germany, when I noticed we had entered an area where prostitutes solicit openly. My then 7-year-old daughter was enchanted by one of these women, who had very long hair and wore thigh-high vinyl boots. "Mommy," my daughter sighed reverently, "she's so pretty. She looks just like a Bratz doll."

The work I did with the task force convinced me we're not just talking about a little bit of second-hand smoke. We're in a smog-filled room, and we're all inhaling and exhaling. Of course, one doll isn't a problem. And maybe one bikini-clad 5-year-old gyrating before the mirror isn't, either. But a culture saturated with a view of femininity that focuses on sex appeal to the exclusion of other characteristics, and increasingly applies this standard to our youngest female members, is a problem we need to take seriously.

Cigarettes have warning labels. Maybe we should consider putting them on Muppet thongs and size 6 "Booty Call" tiny-Ts. Warning: This item is dangerous to your daughter's health.

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