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February 19, 2007

'Parents are hungry for alternatives,' says UCSC prof who chaired task force on sexualization of girls

By Jennifer McNulty

Part of the impetus for the new report on the sexualization of girls came from the concerns of staff in the office of the American Psychological Association who are raising children, said report coauthor Eileen Zurbriggen, an associate professor of psychology at UCSC.

Sexualization of girls is linked to common mental health problems in girls and women, says an American Psychological Association task force chaired by a UCSC professor. (See press release)

"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. The APA's Committee on Women in Psychology launched the study partly in response to those concerns.

The report's findings--that sexualized images of girls and young women harm girls' self-image and healthy development--represent the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of sexualized images on girls. The conclusions validate parents' concerns, said Zurbriggen, chair of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which produced the report.

"We need alternatives to the predominant message that says, 'You are valued only because you're sexy,'" said Zurbriggen. "We have to ask ourselves if corporate profits are really worth the damage we're doing to the next generation."

The task force found evidence that imposing sexuality on young girls diminishes their cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development. Negative consequences can include self-image problems such as shame and anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and difficulty developing a healthy sexual self-image.

"Parents are hungry for alternatives. The success of the American Girl line speaks to that," said Zurbriggen, referring to the popular, and expensive, doll that comes complete with a marketing campaign that encourages girls to "stand tall, reach high, and dream big." Even Barbie dolls now show women being doctors, businesswomen, and athletes, compared with some of today's "highly sexualized dolls that just shop, dress sexy, and gossip," added Zurbriggen, whose own research focuses on connections between power and sexuality, sexual aggression in adolescents, the effects of childhood sex abuse, and media portrayals of sexuality.

"There's growing evidence that objectifying girls and treating them like sex objects leads to self-objectification," she added. "Girls come to see themselves as something to be looked at, rather than as people who do things in the world."

The authors decried the lack of research specifically on the sexualization of girls ages 15 and under, but they emphasized that the portrayal of adult women affects girls. "Girls model themselves after older girls and adult women," said Zurbriggen.

The messages are everywhere, including advertising, merchandising, and media, according to the task force. The imposition of adult sexuality on girls is apparent in items like T-shirts for teens emblazoned with slogans across the chest like 'Who needs brains when you have these?,' said Zurbriggen.

"It's teaching girls that it's most important to be pretty, look sexy, and be something others want to look at," she said. "It takes attention away from learning to do math, to sing, to write a play, or score a goal in soccer. There's nothing wrong with wanting to look nice. It's the bombardment of this one-dimensional, very sexualized look that's harmful."

Zurbriggen and the coauthors of the report called for additional research into how sexualization at a young age impacts sexuality and sexual development. Zurbriggen expressed concern that girls who are treated as sexual objects may never develop the assertiveness required to "say no" or to insist on the use of condoms.

Scant research has looked at how the sexualization of girls impacts boys, but Zurbriggen said it appears to affect their ability to have satisfying intimate relationships as adults. "Perhaps most importantly, do these sexualized portrayals of young girls change the ways adults think about young children in ways that make sex abuse and the trafficking and prostituting of girls more likely?" asked Zurbriggen.

Parents have had some success organizing against what they see as inappropriate products. Activists convinced Hasbro not to create a doll for 6- to 8-year-olds that was modeled after the Pussycat Dolls, a popular all-female band with an overtly sexual style that includes dressing in lingerie.

Zurbriggen encouraged parents to provide many opportunities for girls to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, and to talk with their daughters about the messages all around them and about their choices in clothing and appearance. "If they want to wear sexy clothing, help them think about what it might distract them from doing," she said.

In addition, comprehensive sex education programs in schools should include information on the negative effects of the sexualization of girls, said Zurbriggen.

And school-based media literacy programs should teach all students to be critical consumers of advertising, marketing, and the media. "Advertisers are targeting very young children, under the age of five," said Zurbriggen. "If this continues, we need to start as early as they do."


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