Sexualisation of girls in the media: How parents can fight back with their own message

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Increasing concerns about the sexualisation of girls in the media has prompted a new report addressing the issue, providing parents and their daughters with tips on how to counteract its influence.

The newly released American Psychological Association (APA)  report entitled "Sexualisation of Girls" highlights that evidence for the sexualisation of women is everywhere: on television, in music videos, song lyrics, magazines, advertising and more.

"Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized," the report states. "But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them."

While extensive analyses documenting the sexualisation of young girls have yet to be conducted, the report notes that individual examples are readily found. To name but a few, the APA identifies the Skechers footwear "naughty and nice" ad featuring Christina Aguilera as a schoolgirl licking a lollypop, Bratz dolls dressed in miniskirts and fishnet stockings, and some printed clothing slogans such as "wink wink."

And, in an example closer to home, Frilled Neck Fashion, an Australian dance wear company, recently received heavy criticism for the sexualised portrayal of young girls in their advertising campaign.  

The APA notes that parents, teachers and peers may also contribute to the sexualisation of girls – for instance by conveying the message that "maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal."

What impact do these messages have on girls' wellbeing? The report highlights that sexualisation has detrimental consequences across a number of different domains.

Research has linked sexualisation to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood. It's also been associated with poorer performance on cognitive tasks like mathematics and reasoning.

And, sexualisation has negatives consequences on girls' ability to develop healthy sexuality.

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So what can parents do? The APA highlights the crucial role parents have in teaching girls to value who they are, rather than how they look, as well as teaching boys to "value girls as friends, sisters and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects."

Here are their tips for parents:

Tune in and talk: Watch movies with your sons and daughters, read their magazines and have a look at the sites they're visiting. Ask questions such as: "Why is there so much pressure on girls to look a certain way?" "What do you like most about the girls you want to spend time with?" And really listen to what your kids are saying.

Question choices: If your child wants to wear something you consider "too sexy" ask her what she likes and doesn't like about the outfit. 

Speak up: Speaking to children about why you don't like a particular TV show, doll or pair of jeans is more effective than simply saying that they can't have, or can't watch, something. Explore the reasons behind your concerns and complain to manufacturers, advertisers and retail stores when products sexualise girls.

Encourage: Support children in athletics and other extracurricular activities that emphasise talent, skill and ability over physical appearance.

Educate: Talking about sexuality with your kids is important – even if it can be uncomfortable. "Talk about when you think sex is okay as part of a healthy, intimate, mature relationship."

Be real: Help children focus on what's really important – what they think, feel and their values. "Remind your children that everyone's unique and that it's wrong to judge people by their appearance."

Model: Given the media and marketing also influences adults, it's important to be aware of what you're watching and buying too – as this can have an impact on your kids.

The APA also provides a number of tips girls can follow if they're feeling overwhelmed by messages they're receiving from the media – particularly around the importance of physical appearance.

Acknowledging that such messages can be powerful, the APA notes that girls can be powerful, too. "With your friends, teachers, and parents," the report outlines, "you can make changes in your school, community, and the media."

Most importantly, however, girls can learn to value themselves more for whom they are, rather than how they look.

Here are the APA's tips for girls:

Tune in and talk: Question what you see on TV, in the movies and on the web. "What qualities do I admire in girls other than the way they look or dress?" "What do I most respect about myself?"

Dress for success: Choose clothes that make you feel confident. "Then you can be your most confident self."

Speak up: If you see something that makes you feel uncomfortable, "use your voice." The APA suggests girls can also play an active role in making changes by writing directly to clothing retailers or television producers or contacting them via social media. "They listen!" The APA notes. Organisations such as, Collective Shout and Not Buying it are also good places to effect change. 

Change the rules: While it's natural to want to fit in, "It's not worth giving up who you are just to be accepted by someone else." The APA notes that girls can help redefine "hot" as being someone who is confident and caring."

Get involved: Explore your interests and discover what makes you happy. "As you develop your skills, talents and abilities, you'll feel proud of your accomplishments."

Learn to be you: Explore your values, feelings and thoughts and share them with your friends. "You have a whole world inside you."

Access the full report, and further resources here.