The New Teen Age

How teens navigate this I-self world.

Sexy and Depressed

The pursuit of sex appeal can lead to depression.

We are told the old adage, "when you look good, you feel good." We are sold the notion that for women to look good, they should look sexy. The media, in particular, presents a very specific image of the "sexy woman" that many can quickly identify: long flowing hair, plumped lips, thin yet curvaceous body, form-fitting clothing, high heels, etc. Advertisements make the promise that if a woman just spends money to enhance her breasts, paint her face and lose a few pounds, she will be happy. Research, however, has found the opposite to be true. The reality is that a fixation with looking sexy can lead to unhappiness.

Many people can successfully toe the line between caring about their physical appearance and other qualities and skills they possess. For example, a young woman may spend a lot of time at the gym and an hour getting ready in the morning, but she also gains self-worth through her academic performance, her sense of humor and being a good friend. She values her appearance but also her personality and accomplishments.

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However, for some teens and young women, the pursuit of sex appeal is not an easy balance and can lead to depression. The American Psychological Association's Task Force on The Sexualization of Girls identified a clear tipping point. According to the Task Force, the pursuit of sexiness becomes problematic when an individual stops caring about their internal qualities and their self-value comes only from their sex appeal. If a young woman refuses to leave her house without her hair and makeup done and only feels good about herself when she gets sexual validation or praise for her appearance, she has become sexualized. The Task Force analyzed numerous studies and found that when a person is sexualized, they have an increased risk of depression.

Most girls cannot obtain the narrowly-defined, airbrushed standard of beauty the media sells. Even if a woman appears to closely match up to the idealized version of sexy, it doesn't mean she has it all. External beauty is fleeting—aging, an accident or illness can bring it to an abrupt end. The image of a "sexy woman" that we are sold has an expiration date and it's difficult to be happy while a clock is ticking. Additionally, this image of sexy is not authentic for many women. While high heels and tight clothes may look good, they don't necessarily feel good for the individual wearing them.

The good news is that when the focus is taken off looking sexy, a person's depression may subside. A 2011 longitudinal study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found that when adolescent girls experienced a reduction in thinking about their bodies in terms of sex appeal, they had an increase in self-esteem and a decrease in depressive symptoms over the course of their teen years. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look sexy, but it needs to be balanced with feeling good about all of the other characteristics one possesses.

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

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