For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Social Life

The Sexualization of Girls and Mental Health Problems: Is There a Connection?

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Think about:

  • a 5-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt that says "Flirt."
  • the advice given in magazines to preadolescent girls on how to look sexy and get a boyfriend
  • print advertisements that portray little girls with pigtails and ruffles in adult sexual poses
  • popular dolls in miniskirts and fishnet stockings advertised during Saturday morning cartoons

 

Is it any wonder that, starting at an early age, girls may believe that their value depends on their so-called sex appeal? What can be done to help girls develop a healthy self-image?

Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression are the most common mental health problems in girls and women. The Report of the APA Task Force on The Sexualization of Girls, issued in 2007, points out the connection between these problems and the sexualization of girls.

The APA Task Force was formed in response to reports by journalists, child advocacy organizations, parents and psychologists. The Report concludes that the sexualization of girls is a broad and increasing problem and is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development. Sexualization is defined as occurring when a person's value comes only from her or his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another's sexual use. The report states that examples of sexualization are found in all forms of media, and as "new media" are created and access to media has become omnipresent, examples have increased.

The Task Force Report states that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains:

  • Cognitive and emotional health: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person's confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and physical health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women—eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexual development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls' ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

According to the APA Report, parents can play a major role in contributing to the sexualization of their daughters, or they can play a protective and educative role. The Report calls on parents, school officials, and all health professionals to be alert for the potential impact of sexualization on girls and young women. Schools, the APA says, should teach media literacy skills to all students and should include information on the negative effects of the sexualization of girls in media literacy and sex education programs. As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings—depictions of girls that show their uniqueness and competence. "The goal should be to deliver messages to all adolescents—boys and girls—that lead to healthy sexual development," states Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the APA Task Force.

In a section called What Parents Can Do, the Report notes, "Girls get this message repeatedly: What matters is how 'hot' they look. It plays on TV and across the Internet. You hear it in song lyrics and music videos. You see it in movies, electronic games, and clothing stores. It's a powerful message. As parents, you are powerful too. You can teach girls to value themselves for who they are, rather than how they look. You can teach boys to value girls as friends, sisters, and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects. And you can advocate for change with manufacturers and media producers." The Report offers recommendations for parents, summarized as follows:

  • Tune in and talk. Watch TV and movies with your daughters and sons; read their magazines and surf the Web sites they look at. Ask questions.
  • Question choices. Girls who are overly concerned about their appearance often have difficulty focusing on other things. Explain how preoccupation with clothes might keep your daughter from focusing on school work, friends, and other activities.
  • Speak up. If you don't like a TV show, song, video, pair of jeans, or doll, say why. Conversation will be more effective than just banning. Support campaigns and companies and products that promote positive images of girls. Complain to those responsible when products sexualize girls.
  • Understand. Help your daughter make wise choices about trendy clothes. Remind her that who she is and what she can do are more important than how she looks.
  • Encourage. Encourage your daughter to get involved in a sport or other activity that emphasizes talents, skills, and abilities over physical appearance.
  • Educate. Even if you feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality with your kids, it's important to talk about peer and cultural influences on sexual behaviors, how to make safe choices, and what constitutes a health relationship.
  • Be real. Help your kids focus on what's really important: what they think, feel, and value. Remind your children that everyone is unique and that it's wrong to judge people by their appearance.
  • Model. Marketing and the media influence adults as well as kids. If you think about what you buy and watch, and why, you will teach your sons and daughters to do so too.

For more information, see the American Psychological Association Report at http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html