Facebook Twitter

How sexualization of girls creates long-term problems that harm all children

In just one year, grade school-age children could take in as many as 80,000 “sexy girl” portrayals just watching kid-targeted TV programming

SHARE How sexualization of girls creates long-term problems that harm all children

Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Public policies protect young kids from images of cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, drug use and even cereals that contain too much sugar. But when it comes to potentially harmful portrayals of what it means to be a girl, families are largely on their own.

In just one year, grade school-age children could take in as many as 80,000 “sexy girl” portrayals just watching kid-targeted TV programming, according to psychologist Christia Spears Brown of the University of Kentucky. No one’s sure how often kids get a sexualized view of what it means to be a girl from all the media they consume.

While girls are told they can choose their futures, their role models for the path to popularity are typically more concerned with looking sexy than being accomplished or smart, according to Brown’s report for the Council on Contemporary Families. In “Media Messages to Young Girls,” Brown details the confusing messages media provide children — especially girls — and notes the problem is far from benign.

Girls as young as 5 and 6 aspire to look sexualized, complete with short skirts, belly shirts, lots of makeup and heels — though those same girls in Brown’s research rate sexualized women as “less worthy of being helped when in danger than nonsexualized women,“ said the professor of developmental psychology and author of “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue.”

“They really seem to hold that as the image of what it means to be popular,” Brown said. “Part of what’s concerning is that we’re seeing it really young and also that the girls themselves don’t associate it with a lot of other positive traits.” 

But even though a sexualized image may be sought-after, it doesn’t garner respect. Brown found that girls who hope to look and dress like role models that portray popularity as requiring looking sexy say that girls who do that are not smart, nice or athletic.

“You have this real bind of aspiring to be like someone because that’s who’s kind of pretty and attractive and popular. Yet, she’s not really associated with any of the things we think we want our kids to value: doing well in school, being kind to others, being strong. And so that becomes problematic,” said Brown.

The American Psychological Association says sexualization occurs when any of these four aspects occur:

  • A person’s value derives solely from sexual behavior or sex appeal, excluding any other characteristics;
  • A person is held to a narrowly defined standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy;
  • A person is objectified sexually — valued only for others’ sexual use — instead of seen as someone capable of acting independently and making decisions; and/or
  • Sexuality is imposed on a person inappropriately, as in the case of sexualizing children.

Sexualization, the association says, can harm cognitive function, physical and mental health and healthy sexual development, creating byproducts like eating disorders, poor self-esteem and depression. 

The sexualization starts with television. Even cartoons offer sexualized female characters and children watch an average of 4.5 hours of TV daily, said Brown. But that’s far from the only source of the message, which is contained in music videos, lyrics, movies, video games, magazines and on the the internet.

Even toys have impact. Dolls are sexualized, aside from baby dolls. And some stores feature a full line of makeup and skimpy clothing and underwear for very young girls.

A high cost

As an experiment, researchers gave some grade school-aged girls a sexualized doll, “Fashion” Barbie, then asked the children about their career aspirations. Girls who played with the Barbie doll had fewer goals than the girls who instead played with Mr. Potato Head, who has no sex appeal.

In grade school, boys are “largely clueless” about sexuality, the report said, so the pressure girls feel is self-generated.

In middle school, Brown said girls hold sexualized aspiration even closer, endorsing the notion that it’s important to get boys’ attention, which can be accomplished by looking “hot.” 

Her research found sexualized girls think they should pay attention to how their bodies look and they expect boys to focus on their bodies, too, and not on other attributes.

Sexualized girls, including girls who are very capable in school, show less motivation to learn and are less confident in their academic ability. They are more likely to not raise their hand in class, even if they know an answer. Even very young girls told Brown they sometimes “play dumb.”

“That’s just really disturbing,” she said.

The impact is predictable: By middle school, girls may have lower academic motivation and try less in school, which leads to less academic achievement and learning. That, in turn, can change their future trajectory, making it harder to catch up or go to college, for instance. And there are other effects. Girls who bought into a sexualized image find that hard to achieve and sustain, so they are less happy with how they look. They may want to be thinner than their bodies are designed to be, Brown said. 

Playing the part

When Sports Illustrated decided to include more diverse body types in its annual swimsuit issue, it was couched as an improvement. What it didn’t change was the objectification of females, according to media monitors Lexie and Lindsay Kite, both Ph.D.s who have campaigned against hypersexualization of girls and women. On their website, BeautyRedefined.org, they wrote: “Objectification hurts us. It minimizes us, it distracts us, it drains us. It always has.”

Don’t cheer, they said, “when new female body types are deemed acceptable to be stripped down and posed for sexual consumption in a mainstream sports magazine.”

Ellen Wartella, the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, has studied how sex and sexuality are portrayed by media. She said it’s not uncommon to see teens having sex — usually casual, rarely safe and often with multiple partners — in popular media.

“This is not the most beneficial portrayal for adolescents who are coming to terms with their own sexuality,” said Wartella, who was not involved in Brown’s research.

Wartella said some children are sexting before their teens. And many are learning about sex from the media far more often than from parents, teachers or churches, said Wartella, a longtime media expert who was among those tapped to monitor TV content for Congress when it looked at problematic, violent programming. The American Academy of Pediatrics echoes concerns about media’s role as a significant source of children’s information about sex.

“The media can be very, very powerful in presenting kids with exposure,” said Wartella, also a professor of psychology and of human development and social policy.

“We’ve had this thing that we know is dangerous, this kind of sexualized image which we know is associated with body image issues, sexual harassment, all these other kind of outcomes. And yet, at the same time we’re seeing an explosion of the amount of access kids are having to that very image and no real conversation about restricting it,” said Brown.

Wartella believes policymakers are more comfortable talking about and tackling violence in the media than in addressing sexual content for minors, though there are rules about obscenity and pornography. “The way I think policymakers feel comfortable with portrayals of sexuality is ‘it’s not obscenity.’ That’s all they care about,” Wartella said.

Experts say some of the reluctance to use policy to address sexualization stems from reluctance to censor what’s not clearly pornographic or obscene. People have different measures for what’s inappropriate on that side of the legal line.

Policymakers have, on occasion, signaled a willingness to consider action if they think children are being sexually exploited or media has depicted actual pornography.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee sent a letter to Netflix last week regarding outrage and concern over the film “Cuties,” about an 11-year-old who rebels against her conservative Muslim family by joining a dance crew, which performs highly suggestive dances. He said his staff is deciding whether to refer it to federal law enforcement.

In the letter, Lee said he was concerned about the movie’s young actresses’ influence on other young girls, but his larger concern is with the possibility that the inappropriate scenes might encourage the sexual exploitation of young girls by adults.

Families may have a hard time addressing sexuality, too. Some find it an uncomfortable topic, Wartella said, which may be one reason young people are learning about sexual identity and practices from peers rather than parents.

Bullies and boys

Sexualization of girls also impacts boys. The more boys buy into stereotypical presentations of females, the more apt they are to accept sexually harassing girls as normal behavior, Brown said.

Brown said that can also lead to believing myths like a girl who dresses in a certain way is “asking for it” — the “it” being obnoxious behavior and even sexual assault. “It creates a line leading from sexualized clothing to really concerning outcomes,” Brown said. “We see in middle school that the more kids endorse those stereotypes, the more they think sexual harassment is OK.”

Boys are often rewarded for aggression that toys, video games and other media promote. Meanwhile, girls are socialized to be “kind of compliant and quiet and to want to make sure everyone’s happy,” said Brown. “Be the peacekeeper. Then you have boys being taught to be aggressive and that (behavior) being allowed and tolerated.”

She said Italian studies show those who see sexualized girls rate them as “less human” than nonsexualized girls.

“So you have this objectification/dehumanization at the same time we’re promoting aggression in boys and kind of tolerating that.”

Sexual harassment is very common in middle school and high school, said Brown, and often goes unaddressed. It continues in college, where the environment can lead to criminal consequences.

“Now you add dorm parties and alcohol and lack of any kind of adult supervision and it’s not surprising we have such high rates of sexual assault in college,” she said.

Brown said schools aren’t addressing issues like sexual harassment, which is “one of the big outcomes” of sexualizing girls throughout their childhood. Boys grow up seeing that sexualization, but may not be told that it’s wrong.

“Boys, in fact, can be bullied and harassed if they don’t sexually objectify girls. They face a lot of pressure to act that way,” she said.

“So both boys and girls are in this kind of double bind. Girls are just trying to be popular and to do that it means they’re sacrificing academics, they’re sacrificing self-esteem, they’re sacrificing not being treated as objects. And boys are starting out pretty sweet and well-intentioned, but if they’re not taking part in this script, they are facing their own teasing and bullying by their peers.”

She said that adults have to figure out how to help both of them break those learned behaviors.