Tuesday, November 9, 2010

APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls

The American Psychological Association's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls has issued a report (PDF) defining sexualization, examining the prevalence of sexualization, evaluating the evidence suggesting sexualization has negative consequences for girls and society, and describing alternatives to counteract the influence of sexualization.

The entire report is worth a read (72 pages), but I've provided some highlights below.

Defining sexualization, the report's introduction aptly summarizes how the sexualization of girls works concurrently with dominant beauty standards for women to further harm girls (and women):

"...[I]n the current environment, teen girls are encouraged to look sexy, yet they know little about what it means to be sexual, to have sexual desires, and to make rational and responsible decisions about pleasure and risk within intimate relationships that acknowledge their own desires.Younger girls imbued with adult sexuality may seem sexually appealing, and this may suggest their sexual availability and status as appropriate sexual objects. Concomitantly, women are often considered sexy only when they appear young, thus blurring the line between who is and is not sexually mature (Cook & Kaiser, 2004)."

I am reminded here of the Glee photo shoot in GQ wherein two adult women portrayed sexually available teenage girls. At once, the images imbued "teenage schoolgirls" with adult sexuality while simultaneously reinforcing the message that adult women are sexiest when they look incredibly young.

Indeed, the report notes how the media contributes to the sexualization of girls:

"On television, young viewers encounter a world that is disproportionately male, especially in youth-oriented programs, and one in which female characters are significantly more likely than male characters to be attractive and provocatively dressed (Eaton, 1997)."

I know, in other news, sky is blue.

Nonetheless, the media saturation of sexualized images of girls and women is an observation that needs to be made in order to make the case that something should be done about it. And, when you read through the report's examples and findings of sexualization, it is infuriating.

It is often said that Women These Days Don't Know How Good They Have It because, I suppose, anti-discrimination laws are now in effect and we therefore live in a post-feminist society. But, despite the appearance of "legal equality," how equal are men and women really when movies, TV, magazines, cartoons, music lyrics, and advertisements send girls (and women) the message our most important feature is our ability to gain the attention and approval of men via our looks?

Isn't it telling that so much appearance-related advice to women is of the How To Lose Weight variety, rather than the How To Be Healthy type? It is society's metaphor for keeping women, and our roles in the world, small. Weightless.

Particularly sad are the findings related to how when girls internalize the idea that they are sex objects leads to feelings of shame, repulsion, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and heightened fear of becoming fat. And, when men are exposed to media that objectifies women, they are more likely to treat women like sexual objects and to view women as less intellectually competent.

The report also proposes a number of ways to counteract some of the negative consequences of the sexualization of girls. As a feminist blogger, I find it somewhat validating that among these tactics are educating girls to view media critically and reaching girls and women through alternative media such as feminist blogs, books, websites, and forums.

So, yeah, fellas, stick that in your Feminists-Should-Stop-Criticizing-Silly-Things-Like-Sexist-TV-Shows pipe and smoke it.

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