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Fighting oversexualization

When activists across the political spectrum agree something is a problem, you know you have a real issue on your hands.

The issue of teen and child sexualization by popular media and marketing is just such an issue. The images of girls — especially girls' bodies — that dominate billboards, newsstands, airwaves and even toy stores are, experts say, having a profound effect on young girls as they form their sense of self and discover relationships with the opposite sex. The message is that a woman's personal value is based on her physical appearance and sexuality, and that digitally altered images are somehow an attainable ideal.

Study after study demonstrates that this objectification of women devalues intelligence, character and accomplishment and pushes girls toward depression, unhealthy relationships, eating disorders and plastic surgery. And it isn't just girls who are impacted. Images of women as nothing more than objects of a man's desire pose just as many problems for young men as they come to grips with their own sexuality and learn patterns of interaction with the female sex.

And everyone — right, left and center — recognizes this. Today's Deseret News article on fighting back against the sexualization of young people in popular culture highlights some organizations committed to challenging and changing the media environment.

For example, Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge (SPARK), is a coalition of women, men, research institutes, media experts and policymakers working to raise awareness. There are others, such as the prominent Dove body image campaign. But they are certainly a David up against a Goliath in the fashion, entertainment and toy industries.

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of such vast amounts of money and power. But for parents, teachers and others who care about children, there are ways to stand up for them publicly and protect them individually.

Concerned citizens can get involved with activist groups to work for change in their communities.

Parents can learn as much as possible about the media, popular and consumer culture today's kids swim in and establish safe channels for talking about sexual development starting at a young age. With so many sexualized images saturating the culture, children desperately need adults with whom they can talk openly and who can help them understand their developing sexuality in positive ways. Simply saying "no" to entertainment or merchandise requests from kids won't be enough; they need to understand and be empowered to work out solutions and make educated choices.

Parents and others should also praise intellectual, creative and athletic accomplishments in children rather than physical beauty or social success. Better yet, they can praise effort, hard work and character over achievement and work to counteract negative stereotypes of boys and girls seen in the media.

Perhaps most challenging of all is examining our own underlying assumptions and the unintended messages we send. For example, teaching young women that "modest is hottest" may be intended to encourage self-respect, but it also reinforces the idea that "hottest" is the goal and can be yet another way of seeing women as nothing more than objects of male desire. Indeed, part of the battle may be to educate and protect not just our children, but ourselves.

With manipulative messages and advertisements saturating the culture, it can be difficult not to unwittingly buy into some of the glitz. But for the sake of our youth, we must continue to increase our awareness of the problem and push back against powerful media and corporate powers that are driven more by a bottom line than by ethical considerations.