February 21, 2007

Everyday Images: APA Report Details the Consequences of Our Sexualized Culture

The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls issued a report this week detailing the omnipresence and damaging effects of sexualized images of girls and young women in American culture.

While much of the first part of the report confirms what most media observers already suspect, it is still enlightening to hear such a precise and thorough analysis. The APA report breaks down the consequences on multiple levels, looking at the effects of sexualized images on mental and physical health, development of a girl’s sexuality, and the development of general attitudes and beliefs concerning femininity and sexuality. The research links sexualization to three common mental health problems among young women: low self-esteem, depression or depressed mood and eating disorders.

It also explores the impact of these images — not just on young women, but on men and society at large. And while the report focuses on advertising and media representations, it also discusses how a girl’s interpersonal relationships with parents, other authority figures and peers often reinforce the media’s portrayals.

The task force summarizes its findings emphatically:

In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.

The most intriguing part of the report, though, discusses the sweeping impact these images have on all aspects of a young woman’s life:

Psychology offers several theories to explain how the sexualization of girls and women could influence girls’ well-being. Ample evidence testing these theories indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.

Although most of these studies have been conducted on women in late adolescence (i.e., college age), findings are likely to generalize to younger adolescents and to girls, who may be even more strongly affected because their sense of self is still being formed.

Report contributor and psychologist Sharon Lamb told the Washington Post: “I don’t think because we don’t have the research yet on the younger girls that we can ignore that [sexualization is] of harm to them. Common sense would say that, and part of the reason we wrote the report is so we can get funding to prove that.”

Eileen Zurbriggen, an associate professor of psychology at UCSC and co-author of the report, told UCSC Currents Online that part of the impetus for the report came from APA staff concerns.

“Like a lot of parents, they were worried about what they were seeing around them — thong underwear for 7-year-olds, pole dancing for girls on television,” said Zurbriggen.

And in film, and on the internet and in games that promise to teach kids how to pole dance at home. The images — and messages — are ubiquitous. And corporate denials insisting it’s all in good fun just seem pathetic. From the Washington Post:

Isaac Larian, whose company makes the large-eyed, pouty-lipped Bratz dolls, says, “Kids are very smart and know right from wrong.” What’s more, his testing indicates that girls want Bratz “because they are fun, beautiful and inspirational,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Not once have we ever heard one of our consumers call Bratz ‘sexy.’ ” Some adults “have a twisted sense of what they see in the product,” Larian says.

Fortunately, the report, which is supposed to be a guide for psychologists in their own practices as well in their collective public advocacy, also offers a series of specific recommendations, including emphasizing the need for “co-viewing” of media with informed parents and as part of school’s official curriculum and encouraging girls to become cultural creators and critics:

Girls and girls’ groups can also work toward change. Alternative media such as “zines” (Web-based magazines), “blogs” (Web logs), and feminist magazines, books, and Web sites encourage girls to become activists who speak out and develop their own alternatives. Girl empowerment groups also support girls in a variety of ways and provide important counterexamples to sexualization.

If you ask me, a good place to start might be About-Face, Girls, Women + Media Project or My Pop Studio. You can find an annotated list of other sites at Women, Websites and Body Image. More media literacy resources are available here. As for magazines, I highly recommend New Moon for girls 8-13 and Teen Voices for early teens.

In the Washington Post article, author Stacy Weiner does an admirable job of personalizing and historicizing the APA findings. She includes many interviews with girls and their parents — and she talks to experts who place the sexualization we are presently seeing in a fascinating context:

When do little girls start wanting to look good for others?

“A few years ago, it was 6 or 7,” says Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore-based sex educator. “I think it begins by 4 now.”

While some might argue that today’s belly-baring tops are no more risqué than hip huggers were in the ’70s, Roffman disagrees. “Kids have always emulated adult things,” she says. “But [years ago] it was, ‘That’s who I’m supposed to be as an adult.’ It’s very different today. The message to children is, ‘You’re already like an adult. It’s okay for you to be interested in sex. It’s okay for you to dress and act sexy, right now.’ That’s an entirely different frame of reference.

At another point, Weiner cites Wheelock College professor Diane Levin’s argument that much of the consumerism problem can be traced back to the deregulation of the children’s television in the 1980s — when product placement really began.

With the rules loosened, kids’ shows suddenly could feature characters who moonlighted as products (think Power Rangers, Care Bears, My Little Pony). “There became a real awareness,” says Levin, “of how to use gender and appearance and, increasingly, sex to market to children.”

And companies have run with it. As Peggy Orenstein all too briefly touched on in her recent New York Times story, “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” Disney seems intent on selling purity via pink princess culture, until girls grow up and naturally move on to “Dark Tink” panties — as in Tinkerbell — described as “the bad girl side of Miss Bell that Walt never saw.”

“We need alternatives to the predominant message that says, ‘You are valued only because you’re sexy,’” Zurbriggen, the report’s co-author, told UCSC Currents Online. “We have to ask ourselves if corporate profits are really worth the damage we’re doing to the next generation.”

Lamb, who is also co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes” (St. Martin’s, 2006), notes that the particular representation of sexuality that children are exposed to is damaging in itself.

“The issue is that the way marketers and media present sexuality is in a very narrow way,” says Lamb. “Being a sexual person isn’t about being a pole dancer [...] This is a sort of sex education girls are getting, and it’s a misleading one.”


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