Cover Story

One aspect of American culture that seems particularly toxic is the sexualization of young girls--whether it's marketing scantily clad dolls to 6-year-olds, thongs sized for grade-schoolers, or teens turning to heiress Paris Hilton and pop star Britney Spears as role models.

An APA task force has spent two years reviewing research on this phenomenon, and released a report on the topic in February.

Their findings? "We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development," says psychologist Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the task force and associate professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

According to the task force, sexualization occurs when people value a woman or girl primarily for her sexual appeal or behavior; hold her to a narrow standard of beauty; equate her physical beauty with sexiness; view her as an object for sexual use; or inappropriately impose sexuality on her.

The six-member group pored over hundreds of studies to draw its conclusions, which it made in three areas:

  • Prevalence. The sexualization of women and young women in this country has, in fact, increased over time, says Zurbriggen. However, there is still little research in the area on young girls, though anecdotal evidence like the trend toward provocatively dressed dolls and sexy clothing marketed to young girls strongly suggests such a rise.

  • Effects. Sexualization has a range of negative consequences for young women, the task force finds. For instance, "studies show that when you begin to see yourself as a sex object, it leaves you with fewer cognitive resources to do things like math," Zurbriggen says. Sexualization also can lead to body shame, depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem, the report notes.

  • Potential for progress. There are a variety of steps parents, educators, policy-makers and the media can take to counteract this toxic trend, the report notes.

These include creating comprehensive sexuality-education programs for boys and girls that include a component on sexualization; adding media-literacy programs to school curricula; promoting healthy activities for girls, including athletics and art; and promoting religious or spiritual values that de-emphasize appearance and encourage qualities such as kindness, generosity and empathy.

The report also calls for more research on the topic, and for federal agencies to support the development of pro-girl programming aimed at counteracting the effects of sexualization.

-T. DeAngelis

Further Reading

The full task force report and an executive summary are available online at www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html. Request hard copies by contacting the APA Women’s Programs Office, at the APA address or at (202) 336-6050.