The New Teen Age

How teens navigate this I-self world.

Miley Cyrus: Is Critiquing Her Sexy Style Counterproductive?

Let's not focus on Miley Cyrus' sexy style.

A recent photo of Miley Cyrus in a skimpy outfit has once again sparked controversy concerning the sexy image of the 17-year old pop star. Over the past few years, Miley has transformed from an All-American, clean-cut tween Disney star to a teen performer who seems to receive more attention for her sexy photo shoots and on stage gyrations than for her singing abilities. Media reports condemning her provocative wardrobe choices have been so prevalent she has felt the need to respond with a statement saying "I'm not trying to be slutty". Ironically, putting so much focus on the exploitation of Miley Cyrus' sex appeal works to perpetuate the cycle of the sexualization of girls.

The messages that young people receive regarding sexuality are conflicting. The sexy images girls are bombarded with start in toddlerhood with Barbie and Bratz dolls, move on to sexy Halloween costumes in the tween years and then to the myriad of sexual images teens view each day in films, on TV, on the Internet and in print advertisements. However, when an adolescent girl begins to experiment with a sexy image, they are often shamed or criticized.

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Although adults may perpetuate these sexualized images, they are right to be concerned. While it's normal for adolescent girls to experiment with sexy dress as they mature, it becomes problematic when a girl starts gaining her identity from being sexy. The APA has formed a special task force on the sexualization of girls. Sexualization occurs when a person's value comes from their sex appeal, when a person is held to a standard that equates beauty with sexiness, when sexuality is imposed on a person or when a person is viewed as a thing for another's sexual purposes. Multiple studies have linked the sexualization of girls to low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression.

Understandably, many parents are worried about Miley's image because she is still a teenager and because she has many young, impressionable fans. However, critiquing her style of dress is just an additional form of attention placed on a teenage girl's sex appeal. If all press is good press, then perhaps many teens feel all attention is good attention. And if teenage girls only appear in the media when they are being sexy or when they are being critiqued for being sexy it further perpetuates the sexualization of girls.

The APA has developed excellent recommendations for parents and educators to combat the sexualization of girls. One of the recommendations is to encourage teen girls to take part in activities that focus on skill, intellect or talent and do not focus on physical appearance. Additionally it is beneficial to talk about teens that are doing positive things. The recent story of 16 year-old Abby Sunderland who attempted to sail around the world is such an example. This is the type of story that should warrant the attention of parents and the media, not the sexy outfits of a teen pop star.

Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., specializes in adolescent and sexual development.

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