Imagine yourself back in February — or whenever you last watched a NFL game. Did you notice how many ads featured women wearing revealing clothing? Did you count how many commercials used sex to sell their product? The idea of using sex to sell is not new to marketing, but over the past several decades the level of objectification has been sharply increasing. This has been happening at the same time that the topic of body image in America has been receiving lots of attention. Increased awareness of the negative consequences of “fat shaming” and the unachievable celebrity body type is a sharp contrast to commercials, magazines, TV shows, and the internet that continue to portray an unrealistic ideal for women’s bodies. An important, and less often discussed consequence of the pervasiveness of these images is that children are often exposed to sexual themes at young ages. This is the concept of the sexualization of children. This post aims to raise awareness about sexualization, its consequences, and what can be done (particularly by parents) to combat it.
What is sexualization?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sexualization is a broad term that encompasses several negative views surrounding sex and sexuality. Any single point below should be enough to raise concern. Based on an APA report, sexualization is when:
• An individual’s value comes only from their appearance or sexual behavior to the exclusion of all other strengths and values.
• An individual uses a rigidly narrow definition of physical attractiveness as a substitute for the definition of “sexy” or “sex appeal”.
• An individual has become sexually objectified in their own mind (self objectification) wherein they believe that they are a sexual object for use by others rather than a person with the capacity to think and make choices for themselves.
• Sexuality is inappropriately imposed on an individual, rather than that individual developing sexuality on their own.
These descriptors of sexualization show that sexualization is not a problem exclusive to children, in fact it is quite common in modern adults. The last point, however, is of most interest here. While teens, pre-teens, and even younger children explore sexuality as part of normal development, sexualization may result when outside forces (media, internet, magazines, etc.) inappropriately tell children what is or is not “sexy”. The other three descriptors often follow: after buying into the idea of what “sexy” is (as defined by the media), children and young adults begin to define their value to society by how close they can come to a physical ideal. It is a relatively short mental step from there to self objectification.
Impacts of sexualization
The most significant impact of sexualization (regardless of age) is self objectification. This is the psychological state in which the individual has internalized public messages about physical beauty, sex, and sexuality. The individual then views herself as an object with sexual value based on physical appearance as opposed to an individual with value based on the spectrum of human abilities. It should be no surprise that the next step is the development of issues with self confidence and body image, since nearly no one can realistically live up to what the modern media portrays as attractive. Numerous studies have found that problems with self confidence and body image play a role in the development of eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Beyond self-objectification, there are several serious consequences of sexualized thoughts and feelings on younger ages. Early sexualization has been linked with self imposed limits on career potential. One study compared girls in two groups: one group that played with non-sexualized toys and one that played with Barbies. The researchers found that the Barbie group held the belief that boys were able to do significantly more (in terms of profession) than girls. Other studies have found that exposure to sexualized media early in childhood decreases attention in school (creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about future career success).
Girls with early exposure to sexualization also generally are more likely to believe in gender stereotypes and gender roles than their peers. For young women who had increased childhood exposure to sexualized messages, there is a decrease in condom use, decreased sexual assertiveness, and increased sense of shame associated with sex. This has been linked to increased levels of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual assault.
What if I don’t have a daughter?
Clearly all of the negative impacts mentioned above should concern parents, family, and friends of young girls, but what about people who have no connection with young women? There have been some studies on the effects of sexualized images on boys. One study focused on 592 boys and found that viewing sexualized images of women in Men’s magazines increased their scores significantly on a sexual aggression evaluations. Increasing sexualized images have been correlated with increased reports of sexual harassment among elementary and middle school children. In adulthood, these problems continue. Regardless of your parenthood status, the effects of sexualization on children almost certainly affect you or someone you know.
What can I do as a parent?
As a parent, the first instinct is likely to shelter your child from these messages: strictly limiting the types of TV shows your children are allowed to watch, magazines they read and the clothing they purchase. And while this could work theoretically, in practice it becomes difficult. First, children are very resourceful when it comes to fitting in with their peer groups. They may buy their own clothes and change into them at school, keep magazines in their desks, and use the internet when at friends’ homes . Moreover, it is developmentally normal for kids to value fitting in with their peer groups, so the conflict generated by a total embargo may do nearly as much harm as ignoring the problem all together.
Perhaps the most influential goal is school program reform. This has been recommended by the American Psychological Association and their British counterpart. Schools need to focus on messages of gender equality and healthy self-image including restructuring sex education to go beyond the nuts and bolts of procreation and discuss healthy sexuality, beauty (beyond physical), and body image. Challenges include finding support at local, state, and even federal levels for significant education change. While difficult, parents can group together to meet with administrators. Parents should encourage their children to participate in extra-curricular activities; sports and clubs that value and reward skill or talent help insulate self-image against messages of beauty and sex appeal. Beyond sweeping reform and after-school activities, there is still plenty that can be done individually with your children.
The most important thing you can do is examine your own beliefs and attitudes on this subject. Mothers especially are very influential to young girls’ developing sense of self. Maternal self- image and focus on physical beauty and clothing choices have been shown to strongly influence daughters. Being aware of messages you may be sending (intentional or not) is an important first step. Simply talking with your child can do a world of good; show your child you understand her pressure to fit in and acknowledge its importance. Ask questions about her choices in media, clothing, toys, etc. Ask if she understands the more complex issues of sexuality that are evoked with certain fashion choices. These honest and open discussions must come from a place of love, not judgment or authority. If your child understands you are not criticizing her but are communicating honestly, you may have more success in opening a dialogue.
Beyond having honest discussions with children, acting as a filter is an important role for the modern parent. Kids as young as 6 years of age are aware of physical beauty and want to fit in. The problem is that the rest of their brains are nowhere near being developed enough to sift through media messages critically. As a parent you can sit with your children while they watch TV, read their magazines, and listen to their podcasts. Be aware of the messages portrayed and be the critical filter for them. Use open and honest conversations to discuss these issues.
This issue is one that has been around, and growing, for several decades. With the ubiquity of sex and sexuality in advertising and other popular media, the messages in recent years have begun to reach younger audiences, and children are more vulnerable than adults due to their lack of critical thinking skills. The potential mental health outcomes of early sexualization are significant. Fortunately, there is plenty that can be done as a parent to help protect children. Simple things like honest and non-judgmental discussions about the issues and awareness and role modeling positive behaviors is just as important as any large policy reform in schools. Above all, support your child. Parental praise for accomplishments can have lasting effects on a child’s self image, and can help combat negative messages they may be hearing elsewhere.
May, 2017. This blog post was written by Jeffrey Rosenwinkel, Medical Student at the University of Illinois-Chicago and edited by Dr. Susan Buchanan.
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