Early on in my career, while working as a psychotherapist with adolescent girls and their families, I developed a passion for studying how exposure to various forms of media can shape child development. I learned that the negative effects of gender stereotyping and the sexualization of girls are seen throughout our culture and are much more far reaching than most people realize.
Several months ago, I was asked to join the Brave Girls Alliance, (BGA) a powerhouse global think tank of business owners, experts, authors and activists who have come together to promote the belief that girls deserve a childhood free of stereotyping and sexualization, the encouragement to reach their full potential, and the joy of knowing that there are many ways to be a girl.
The BGA recently launched a revolutionary awareness campaign. Through crowdsourced fundraising, we rented a billboard in Times Square, which broadcasted over 700 messages (Tweets!) from supporters around the world about what #BraveGirlsWant from media content creators. Then, on the United Nations International Day of the Girl, we were on the ground in Times Square and at the UN talking to girls, parents and the press about strategies to support healthier representations of women and girls in the media.
The American Psychological Association has led the charge to educate about the pervasive and insipid nature of the early sexualization of girls. An APA Task Force was formed in response to reports by journalists, child advocacy organizations, parents and psychologists. Their 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.
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 early sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women—eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
Sexual development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on a girl’s ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.
The APA report states that examples of sexualization are now found in all forms of media, and as “new media” are created and access to media has become omnipresent, examples have increased.
So that begs the question, how did we get here? What is happening in our culture that we hardly notice that it has become “normal” for a prepubescent child to be wearing sweatpants with the words “princess”, “spoiled” “diva” or even worse, an advertiser’s logo bedazzled across her backside? Why are girls as young as five being treated for eating disorders? How has every Halloween costume become a regurgitated combination of short skirts, lace up corsets and fishnet stockings? Why do dolls marketed to six and seven year olds have the affect and wardrobe of “adult” film stars? Why would major retailers continue to produce t-shirts with sayings such as “Too Pretty to do Homework”, or thongs for little girls with the words “Call Me” emblazoned across the front? Because we’re buying what they’re selling.
We brush this off, claiming “What’s the big deal?” “It’s cute!”, “She likes it!”, or “This is just how they dress nowadays!” As parents we have to be the ones to stop the madness. The advertisers have done their jobs and we have become programmed to believe that this is the new normal. We have forgotten that we as consumers are the ones who have the power to drive trends, to say no.
We need to stand up for our girls and be the ones who teach them that their worth and their value lie beyond how they look. I want our daughters to know that their true power and self-worth lies within their hearts and minds, not in the outward appearance of their rapidly developing bodies.
Gender stereotyping can lead to sexualization because of the way we pigeonhole what it means to be female. Our culture places a priority on being “hot” and young girls are portrayed as “sexy” so unapologetically and commonly in the media, we have been tricked into a false sense of security that it is OK. We then shift our expectations of what it means to be a girl.
My friend and colleague, Melissa Wardy, was recently featured on the Today show discussing her new book Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She states that “Gender stereotypes impact both boys and girls as it teaches them a systematic way to place limitations on the people they meet. Gender stereotypes act like a pair of blinders, leaving the believer unable to see the personal characteristics, abilities, and talents an individual may possess. When we do this to our kids, we damage their ability to experience and interact with the incredible people in the world around them.”
So, how can parents navigate this new world and talk with kids about the real consequences of mindless media consumption? How do we help our girls grow and thrive in a culture that worships tabloids and reality TV and makes being skinny and sexy top priority over all else? How do we battle unattainable beauty standards in a toxic cultural environment which sacrifices our health and well-being for the sake of profit? How do we begin to challenge and reverse the gender stereotyping and sexualization of girls?
The prescription for this is Media Literacy. To prevent young girls from buying into the mindset that has damaged the body image and beauty standards for women in our culture, we have to talk openly with them about what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. We must go beyond changing the channel or limiting internet access.
With kids today logging anywhere between 8 to 13 HOURS of media a day, they look at what is most available to them: texts from peers, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TV, internet, music, movies — and then internalize what they see. It is our job to teach our children to think critically about what they are exposed to. Media literacy means challenging the constant barrage of negative media messages. It’s looking at advertising, TV, internet, magazines, movies and newspapers with the blinders off.
Here are some ways your household can become more media literate, today:
- Be aware of what kinds of content your kids are ingesting. Know passwords on phones, tablets and computers. Talk about what their friends are watching and sharing.
- Question your kids regarding the TV they watch and the websites they frequent. Do they feel pressure to look a certain way, BE a certain way to appease the cultural “norms” created by the media, which is then reinforced by their peers? Talk about it, challenge beliefs, show real interest, be present and say NO when you have to.
- Promote higher-level thinking and critical analysis of media. Clarify that what we see is fake, and most of it is trying to get us to buy something. Do your children know about product placement? Do they know about photoshopping? Don’t assume they know what’s real and what’s not. Teach them to challenge and question media content.
- Make media time more engaging and interactive. Sit with them while watching TV or a movie. Pause a show or a commercial and ask them questions like “What do you think about how they are treating each other?”, “How do you feel when you see this?” and “What do you think they are they trying to sell you?”. When you go the store and your kids see (and clamor for) something that was on a commercial (hello Pillow Pets), ask them exactly why they want it. Will it truly fulfill a desire or need, or do they want it because someone in the magic box sang a catchy song and TOLD YOU THAT YOU HAD TO HAVE IT?
- Encourage kids to have more real-life experiences. Do sports, read books, play with friends, do whatever it is that they love and surround themselves with people who make them feel good about themselves.
- Confront media content creators. Write letters or petitions to companies that appear to think it’s ok to sexualize or stereotype children.
- Talk to other parents about these issues and band together in setting limits.
In this technological age, it is crucial that we as parents are the ones to set the standards for our girls and their right to a childhood. It is never too late to talk to our daughters more openly about how they perceive themselves, how they treat others and how they allow themselves to be treated.
Dae C. Sheridan, Ph.D., LMHC, CRC
Dr. Dae Sheridan is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, a Board Certified Clinical Sexologist, a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and a Professor of Human Sexuality. A recognized speaker and commentator on gender, sexual, mental health and parenting issues, Dr. Sheridan regularly presents her research, facilitates psychoeducational seminars and participates as a featured expert for television, internet and other media outlets.
Dr. Sheridan is also co-author of the upcoming Have a Daughter, Be a Man, a how-to book which challenges old-school notions of “manliness” for a new generation of Dads who want more authentic and meaningful relationships with their daughters. www.BeAManUniversity.com
For daily tips and musings on all things happy, healthy and sexy, check out www.DrDae.com and follow her www.facebook.com/DrDae and www.twitter.com/AskDrDae
For more resources and information on the Brave Girls Alliance and their work, go to www.BraveGirlsWant.com