slut was one of the most derogatory and insulting ephithets that could be
hurled at any woman...In today's world, however, both the term itself and the
sexual promiscuity it signifies are embraced (Libeau, 2007, p. 12).
girls seek to assert their own identities, they are inclined to look to women
they admire in pursuit of lifestyles to mimic. Confronted with ambiguous age
boundaries and bombarded with popular cultural icons, a sexual pandemic is
spreading as fashions trickle down into their closets and cultures (Cook, 2004,
p. 210). Fueled by influential media and an overly provocative clothing market,
today's young females are rocketing into adult behaviors at young ages, and
multiple risks are along for the ride.
parents raise voices of alarm at this cultural trend of young girls growing up
too fast and may seek ideas for guiding their youth to embrace standards they
both can agree on. In response to expressions of public concern, the American
Psychological Association formed the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls
to research the issue. The task force defined sexualization as the occurrence
of one or more of four circumstances: when a person's value comes solely from
his or her sexual appeal or behavior; when a person is held to a standard that
equates physical attractiveness (which is narrowly defined) with being sexy;
when a person is sexually objectified; or when sexuality is inappropriately
imposed upon a person (APA, 2007, p. 2).
some parents express concern over these issues, some are likely to wonder why
it is even an issue in the first place. Isn't it OK for their girls to be sexy
and hot? Isn't it good for their daughters to be popular and attract boys'
attention? What's the big deal? Truth be told, it is a big deal because of the
consequences that almost always come hand-in-hand with trying to look sexy and
hot at a young age. When a girl focuses too much on her physical appearance,
she places her self-esteem, emotional and physical health, academic
achievement, and sexual safety on the chopping block. And one of the primary
avenues she's taking to the guillotine is found in her everyday media choices.
typical week, the average adolescent spends more than 40 hours with some form
of mass media|often more time than they spend with their parents. The same
study determined that through the media alone the typical American adolescent
encounters between 10,000 and 15,000 sexual references, jokes, and innuendos
per year (Brown
& Lu, 2007, p. 754).
another study revealed that children are spending more time with the media than
with any other activity except school and sleeping (Roberts, Foehr,
& Rideout, 2005).
The APA task force's report pointed to several facets of the media that
contribute to sexualization, including the Internet, movies/television,
music/music videos, and literature/magazines (APA, 2007, pp. 4-5).
9 in 10 adolescents have access to the Internet, with about 75 percent of them
having access at home. Most teens reported inadvertently stumbling across
pornography online, often via unsolicited emails or misleading links (Taylor & Hansen,
2007, p. 764). Social
networking sites such as MySpace encourage youth to "describe themselves" on
the Internet, and some girls utilize the opportunity to pose in provocative
clothing and post notices of their "sexual availability" (Kornblum, 2005).
Movies and Television
Liebau states it
simply: "American young people are hearing (and seeing) a lot of sex, every
day, when they turn on the TV." While low sexual inhibitions are portrayed as
"carefree and glamorous," there is a blatant lack of depictions of risks or
negative outcomes associated with such behavior (Kunkel et al., 2000, p. 157). In a study that
analyzed 81 primetime television shows, 84 percent of the episodes contained at
least one incident of sexual harassment|an average of 3.4 instances per program
(Grauerholz & King, 1997, p.143).
Most of the sexual
content on primetime occurs outside marital relationships, depictions of sexual
consequences are rare, and gender emphasis lies on women's physical beauty and
men's physical strength. In general, "typical depiction of sexual activity has
been classified as recreational rather than relational" (Brown & Lu, 2007,
Music and Music
But even the
frequency of sexual content found in shows and films takes runner-up to what's
filtering in on the radio. As of a study done in 2005, sexual content appeared more
frequently in adolescents' music selections than in their television or movie
choices (Pardun, L'Engle, & Brown, 2005).
After Britney Spears'
debut album hit the pre-teen scene in the late 1990s, her debut music video was
not far behind. Dancing in the hallways of a school and clad in a sexed-up and
skimped-down version of the standard plaid-and-button-up ensemble, Spears
paraded in her pigtails for her youthful audience's viewing pleasure. Other
stars followed suit. A
few years before Spears' first video premiered, a study reported that as much
as 81 percent of music videos contained sexual imagery (Gow, 1996, p. 156).
Literature and Magazines
Parents can install television filters and
monitor their children's music purchases, but what about what's hitting them
between the covers of their favorite books and magazines?
A 2007 study found that adolescents ranked
magazines as a more important source of information than their parents, peers,
or schools (Taylor & Hansen, 2007, p. 764). The primary point of many
articles, text, cover lines, ads, and photographs is to attract boys' attention
by looking "hot and sexy." The world of magazines is "a place where sexuality
is both a means and an objective, where the pursuit of males is almost the sole
focus of life (Duffy & Gotcher, 1996, p. 43).
They run between the scenes of television
shows and crowd the pages amid the magazine articles, so what are
advertisements presenting as they so frequently permeate children's lives? In a
longitudinal study that analyzed advertisements in popular women's magazines
between 1955 and 2002, 40 percent of the ads featured women as decorative
objects (Lindner, 2004, p. 415).
Abercrombie and Fitch, a clothing store for
pre-teens and teens, riles concerned parents with advertisements featuring
models wearing little more than their birthday suits. One ad depicted a naked
young woman in the arms of a naked young man, and another showed a young man
wearing low-rise jeans positioned so far down that there was little left to the
imagination. With so much focus falling on bare skin, it begs the question,
where are the clothes these models are selling? (APA, 2007)
Buying into Sexy
Maggie wants guys to notice what's inside|without having to reveal too much of
what's outside...But is that possible? (The Art of Modesty,
2004, p. 127)
to an article that ran in Seventeen magazine in June 2004, Maggie's
"unique" style consisted of wearing "Gap skirts or vintage dresses" and
choosing tankinis over "skimpy bikinis." While it is commendable that Maggie's
story was printed in the magazine, the article did not exactly cast her style
choices in a positive light. In the words of one author, Maggie's decision was
"treated as noteworthy at best|and maybe even freakish" (Liebau, 2007, p. 78).
While Maggie hangs out on the "freakish" end
of the spectrum," Abercrombie and Fitch is busy marketing thong underwear for
10-to-16-year-olds with slogans such as "Eye Candy," "Kiss Me," and "Wink
Wink." A spokesman for the company shrugged them off as "cute and sweet" (Cook &
outfits aren't the only products enticing teenaged consumers to crack open
their piggy banks|Even the toy shelves are replete with opportunities to buy
into sexy trends. Bratz dolls are marketed in bikinis, sitting in hot tubs,
mixing drinks and standing around observing the "Boyz" (Lamb & Brown, 2006,
p. 116). Bling Bling Barbie comes dolled up in a micro-miniskirt and plunging,
navel-baring silver tank top. FAO Schwarz sells dolls clad in high heels,
fishnets, garter belts, and bustier.
So what's the harm in all this? The truth is,
young people have a tendency to model the characters they observe; In fact,
teens who watch the most sex on television were found to be twice as likely to
begin have sexual intercourse at younger ages than those who saw the least (Collins
et al., 2004, p. 287). The APA task force reported that when girls are exposed
to sexual content and female objectification it can hinder their ability to
form healthy sexual relationships with their marriage partners later in life:
woman who has learned to fear negative evaluations of her body may be more
focused on her partner's judgments of her than on her own desires, safety, and pleasure
(APA, 2007, p. 27).
Girls need not be sheltered from the reality
of their sexuality; the APA task force wrote that healthy sexuality is related
to greater intimacy in marriage, higher self-esteem, low levels of stress,
personal happiness, and other positive benefits (APA, 2007, p. 26). Forming a
sense of oneself as a sexual being is indeed a normal and healthy part of human
maturation|but danger occurs when this happens too soon and is fueled by the
wrong influences (Arnett, 2000, p.470).
Among older adolescents and young adults,
satisfaction with virginity decreased as they increased their identification
with sexually active characters in the media (Baran, 1976, p. 65). While yesterday's
culture equated domestic qualities with attractiveness, today's society equates
sexiness with physical attractiveness (Wolf, 1991, p. 9).
One danger of viewing an excessive amount of
sex-saturated media is a syndrome known as self objectification. Self
objectification occurs when girls learn to think and treat their own bodies as
objects of others' desires. When a girl becomes self-objectified, she adopts a
mental "third-person perspective" of her physical self and constantly assesses
her body in an effort to conform to the perceived ideal (Frederickson &
Harrison, 1997, pp. 182-183). Besides lower self-esteem, another troubling
effect of self objectification is the adoption of negative attitudes toward the
functional aspects of the body, e.g. breastfeeding, menstruation, sweating, etc
(Ward, 2006, p. 148).
What Else is at Stake?
Multiple other risks come as tag-alongs with
the behavioral risks and impeded development of a healthy sexual attitude. One
study points to over-sexualization as a contributing factor to why girls drop
out of higher level math classes in high school (Frederickson & Harrison,
And if sexual content in media does indeed
increase sexual activity at younger ages, the physical and emotional
consequences of such a trend are nothing to be ignored. The younger a female
is, the more likely she is to contract an STD|twice as much at 13 years old
versus 21 years old (Centers for Disease Control, 2004, p. 3). More than one
million teens get pregnant every year (Kirby, 1997, p.1). Teenagers who are
sexually active have more difficulty sleeping and are 6.3 times more likely to
attempt suicide than their virginal peers (Orr, Beiter, & Ingersoll, 1991,
p. 145). Among girls aged 11 through 17, the number one wish is to lose weight (Maine, 2000, p.31). Another study found an important link between body dissatisfaction and
the onset of cigarette smoking among adolescent girls (Stice & Shaw, 2003,
p. 133). And the list goes on from there.
Ideas for Parents
What can parents do to help their teens steer
clear of these influences? Here are some suggestions:
through their words or actions or lack thereof, can implicitly teach girls that
they agree with media's depiction of the female ideal. Either overtly or
subtly, parents can express their support for movies, television shows, and
advertisements that present harmful ideals to their children.
that your children hear what you say about yourself. One study showed that
girls whose mothers use "fat talk" about their own bodies were at a greater
risk to develop eating disorders (Nichter, 2000, p. 120).
involved in everyday life
and adolescents actively select and interpret television content and assess its
reality by referring to their own experiences and knowledge of the world. If
they are taught to view the content as unrealistic, then the media's influence
will be limited (Chock, 2007, p. 758).
effective technique for diffusing the messages from the television is
implementing a practice known as media co-viewing. According to the APA task
force, when parents actively comment on and discuss the content in shows their
children are viewing, it can alter the messages their children receive.
it is virtually impossible for parents to co-view and intervene with any and
every form of media their daughters encounter, there are other methods of
defense. V-chip technology allows parents to block particular programs of their
choice. Also, when daughters perceive that their parents have an interest in
what they do, where they go, and who they're with, behavioral risks associated
with media can be avoided.
parents encounter a behavioral choice or sexual attitude they are opposed to,
they need to actively and effectively communicate to their daughters that such
actions are not acceptable. Many parents are too reluctant to criticize sexual
trends or attitudes because they fear being accused of being judgmental (Liebau,
2007, p. 9). If teens are seeking sexual information in a sex-saturated world,
they are going to find it|but parents can largely influence and filter what
information they receive and how they receive it (Taylor, 2007, p. 764).
literacy training programs such as the Girls, Women + Media Project (http://www.mediaandwomen.org/)
teach girls to view media critically and aim to create "active interpreters of
messages rather than passive consumers" (Girls, Women + Media Project).
by Dove in recent years turns a critical eye on popular media and instead
emphasizes "real beauty." Their Web site (http://www.campaignforrealbeauty.com/)
provides multiple resources and videos to aid in promoting healthy self esteem
among young women. One video urges parents to talk to their daughters "before
the beauty industry does."
in athletic activities can provide a buffer against media's narrow portrayal of
female identity by focusing on physical competence over appearance. According
to the task force, being a part of an athletic team not only provides a sense
of identity and worth, but it also provides girls with a chance to "develop a
self-concept founded on what they can do rather than on how they look" (APA,
2007, p. 37).
only does increased spirituality increase mental, emotional, and physical well
being, it also provides an important source of identity and purpose outside of
what the media says. Additionally, the sense of community provided by a
religious congregation helps girls avoid loneliness if their parents are not
always available, thus keeping them from turning to media for companionship (APA,
2007, p. 38).
Presented by the media with a society bent on
a narrow focus of female identity|one consisting of hyper-sexual attitudes,
little clothing and widespread promiscuity|young girls are taught to emulate
adult behaviors sooner than their natural pace tells them to do so. The
influence of the media and provocative clothing fashions enable them to speed
up their sexuality and slow down their inhibitions. Such trends are not without
numerous consequences: Multiple studies have shown that behavioral risks (e.g.
early sexual activity) and impaired development of healthy sexual perceptions
are common among young women exposed to over-sexualized media. Early sexual
activity brings with it a basketful of complications that impact physical,
emotional, and mental health. There are several ways in which parents can
intervene and combat the media's sexualized grip on their daughters. The
over-sexualized society has its talons in the shopping malls and oozes its
influence through every facet of the media, but parents can and should take an
active role in its influence within their home and in the lives of their
daughters|because the laundry list of risks is certainly worth avoiding.
Written by Katie Hawkes, Research Assistant,
and edited by Sarah Coyne and Stephen F. Duncan, Professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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