Last summer, I took my niece to a store that specializes in clothes for girls ages 7 to 14. I was troubled by what I saw. Thin little girls were coming out of the dressing rooms in flimsy halter tops and tanks, T-shirts with flirtatious writing on the chest, cotton pants that announced eye-catching slogans on the bottom. Mothers were casually helping their daughters try these things on.
I worried: If this is considered normal for little girls, what will they be wearing when they get to high school? And I wondered: What is this doing to how girls see their bodies, and themselves?
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. The American Psychological Association’s concerns led it to form a Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which last month issued an extensive and worrisome report. Reviewing existing research, the task force found that the sexualization of girls went far beyond merchandising. Girls were portrayed as sex objects, their sex appeal and behavior valued above all else, in television, music videos and lyrics, magazines and movies. Women were used for decoration rather than as complete people. Perhaps most dangerous, the task force reported, the mass media’s definition of physical beauty was very narrow and unrealistic.
But hasn’t this always been the case? According to Eileen Zurbriggen, lead author of the task force study, all of this has escalated dramatically over just the last several years. The messages have become much more sexual and available.
And there is little question that the messages are being received. Research shows that girls and boys both evaluate girls by these sexual standards, and popularity is based on how well they are met. Girls either praise or make fun of one another based not just on physical appearance, but sexuality.
The impact? Researchers have found that early sexualization can undermine a girl’s sense of her own body. This places girls at much higher risk for the many issues associated with shame, including eating disorders, depression and anxiety disorders. And we know that while some girls flaunt their bodies, others hide them and still others cut them. All of which suggest body discomfort.
Last year, I saw a 12-year-old girl with her parents. They had just learned from her diary that she had been sexually active with several older boys. When the family came in for therapy, I expected the girl to be angry at her parents for their intrusion. She wasn’t. She felt sad, ashamed and probably relieved. After her parents left the room, she told me she was not as skinny or pretty as the other girls, so she felt pretty alone. So she thought that if she was sexually active, she would be popular. She didn’t like sex, she said, but she hated being unpopular. Sadly, it worked. Boys paid more attention, and that made her feel more popular.
Many of the actions that can be taken by parents and schools are listed in the American Psychological Association report – media and sex education programs, extracurricular involvement and more. The APA especially recommends sports, so girls can begin to experience their body in more ways than just appearance. Girls most at risk are those who have learned that their only value is either how they look or how they perform academically.
This was the case with the 12-year-old I saw. Because she felt inferior, she spent much of her time comparing herself to others. That always makes you feel worse. Like most people growing up in a fast-paced and highly competitive world, this girl developed her identity based on external characteristics; she has not learned much about who she is on the inside. Sure, she needs counseling and sex education. But I also advised her parents to help their daughter find what she loves and brings her a sense of pride and joy – and, once discovered, to help her do it better, and then expand to other things.
Ultimately, our job as parents is not to help our children become all they can or should be. Our job is to help them become who they are inside.