Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Sexualization of Women and Girls

What's the big deal?

If you read my post yesterday about Sports Illustrated 's swimsuit editions, and you're not particularly psychologically minded, you may be wondering why I'm so concerned. Appreciating the beauty of a woman's body is just healthy sexuality, you may say.

Well, in 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) formed a task force for the purpose of examining the subject and they proposed that any one of these four components of sexualization sets it apart from healthy sexuality:

  • A person's value comes only from his or her appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • A person is made into a thing for others' sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. (This is especially relevant when children are imbued with adult sexuality.)

The task force highlighted numerous studies which they conclude provide ample evidence of the sexualization of women, adolescents, and girls across the media. They focused more on media than on advertising and merchandising because children and adolescents spend more time with entertainment media than they do with any other activity except school and sleeping.

Here are some important results of their research:

  • Women and girls are more likely than men and boys to be objectified and sexualized in a variety of media outlets;
  • Portrayals of adult women provide girls with models that they can use to fashion their own behaviors, self-concepts, and identities;
  • Given the highly sexualized cultural milieu in which girls are immersed, their sexualizing choices about clothing, hair, and makeup and the sexually precocious acting out that some teens get into may be the result of modeling;
  • In magazine advertisements, there is evidence that sexual objectification occurs more frequently for women than for men and that women are three times more likely than men to be dressed in a sexually provocative manner.

How does all of this compute into serious concern? Here's a list of several consequences of objectification that were found through research, much of which was done using adolescents, college students, or adults as subjects:

  • Chronic attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities;
  • It limits the form and effectiveness of girls' physical movements;
  • It leads to increased feelings of shame about one's body;
  • It creates appearance anxiety;
  • It leads to greater body dissatisfaction among girls and young women;
  • It is associated with negative mental health outcomes in adolescent girls.
  • The incidence of anorexia nervosa among 10-to 19-year-old girls during a 50-year period found that it paralleled changes in fashion and idealized body image;
  • Young women who have greater body dissatisfaction have earlier onset of smoking cigarettes;
  • Self-objectification has been correlated with decreased sexual health among adolescent girls (measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness);
  • Idealized narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness make it difficult for some men to find an acceptable partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with their female partners.

The length and depth of the APA Task Force's report, upon which most of this post is based, is impressive (source may be accessed here), and I hope that these summaries have been informative for you.

Sexualization research has yet to address the issue of how findings relate to sexual addiction and sexual compulsivity, though some of the studies cited in the APA Task Force report suggest that early exposure to idealized images of women may negatively affect the ability of boys to relate in an intimate way to real women in the future. Given the powerful influence of the media on the dissolution of many of the boundaries between our current society and the family, that's a pretty scary thought. All the more reason for parents, teachers, and other adults in our communities to be aware of the media's influence; to monitor it, examine it, talk about it, and if it includes sexualized images keep it away from your homes, from your children and teens.

My final advice? Protect the emotional life of your children and the sensitivities of their sexual development. If you wouldn't invite a person into your home to have dinner with your family, then her picture doesn't belong in your child's hands or on your family's TV or computer screen.


    Book suggestions for those interested in learning more about these topics:

    Kilbourne, J. Deadly persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising, New York: Free Press, 1999.

    Kindlon, D. and Thompson, M. Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys,New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

    Lamb, S. and Brown, L.M., Packaging girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers' schemes, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

    Levy, A. Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture, New York: Free Press, 2005.

    Malz, Wendy, The porn trap: The essential guide to overcoming problems caused by pornography, New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2009.

    Olfman, Sharna, ed. The sexualization of childhood, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2009.

    Pollack, W. Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood, New York: Random House, 1998.

    Schor, J.B. Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer culture, New York: Scribner, 2004.

    Tolman, D. L., Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

    Weiss, Robert & Schneider, Jennifer, Intangling the web: Sex, porn & fantasy obsession in the internet age, New York: Alyson Books, 2006.

    More from Catherine McCall MS, LMFT
    More from Psychology Today
    More from Catherine McCall MS, LMFT
    More from Psychology Today