Research shows that today's generation of young women is gripped by a self-esteem crisis. Commissioned by the UK Government, the 2010 Sexualization of Young People review by Dr Linda Papadopoulos found that “exposure to the sexualized female ideal is linked with lower self-esteem, negative moods and depression in young women and girls”.
In his book Raising Girls, psychologist and author Steve Biddulph argues that because of the image-conscious culture they are currently immersed in, girls are more “depressed and stressed than ever”. While, more recently, Dionne Taylor, lecturer at Birmingham City University, argued that her research into the effect of the role hip-hop and dancehall culture on young black British women's sense of ‘self' demonstrated that hyper-sexualization has not only damaged their confidence, but has had a negative impact on their education and employment opportunities, too.
Hyper-sexualization of girls can refer to girls being depicted or treated as sexual objects. It also means sexuality that is inappropriately imposed on girls through the media, marketing or products directed at them that encourages them to act in adult, sexual ways. Examples include thongs produced for seven-year-old girls, advertisements showing young girls in ‘sexy' poses and girls dressing up and dancing provocatively to their favorite pop star's often very adult lyrics. A brief search for ‘hyper-sexualization' on the web will offer up many more examples.
Dionne Taylor says that the young women she interviewed for her study now see sexualization as “part and parcel of life, thanks to raunchy music videos by artists such as Miley Cyrus and Rihanna” and has called on the music industry to feature more balanced images of women in pop music videos. She also encourages parents to have frank discussions with their daughters and schools to run confidence-boosting sessions to help teen girls understand and articulate emerging media trends such as the thigh gap (where a girl's thighs don't touch together when she stands up straight), selfies and the bikini bridge (bikini bottoms stretched between protruding hipbones without touching the stomach).
‘The thigh gap' has become a widespread, harmful – and often physically unachievable – obsession for teen girls. So much so that the term now has its own hashtag on social media and a quick internet search will bring up thousands of images of thighs that don't touch. There are even blogs dedicated entirely to this phenomenon, previously used by models to measure their thinness.
If the concept itself isn't worrying enough, the images are specifically focusing on the thigh gap area, objectifying girls and women as simply body parts by not showing them in their entirety.
Caryn Franklin, TV presenter, fashion commentator and co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, is understandably shocked. “We now have a culture that convinces women to see themselves as an exterior only,” she told
in 2013. “Young women do not have enough female role models showing them action or intellect. In their place are scantily clad celebrities. Sadly, young women are wrongly looking to fashion for some kind of guidance on what it is to be female.”
The social media phenomenon that many parents will be familiar with – and, in fact, have succumbed to themselves – is the selfie. More than a million Instagram photos have now been hashtagged
and, according to a recent study, “91 per cent” of teen social media users have posted a photo of themselves online. Although selfies themselves are essentially just photographic self-portraits, and taking them may seem harmless, teen girls are now taking raunchy and provocative images that mirror their scantily clad pop idols. Olympia Nelson, a year 11 schoolgirl, wrote an op-ed feature for
in Australia called Dark undercurrents of teenage girls' selfies. She believes that teen girls' popularity is decided by how sexy they can appear and how much admiration they attract. “That's the reason we see mirror shots,” she explains, “pouting self-portraits of teenagers (typically female) and sexually suggestively posed girls in a mini-dress ‘before a party last night'. They're showing how much they like themselves and hoping that you'll hit ‘like' to reinforce the claim.”
With the rise of free editing apps for phones, tablets and computers, teen girls are able to edit, add to and erase so-called flaws from their pictures at the touch of a button. In doing so, our daughters can run the risk of editing their appearance to such an extent that there will be no ‘real' evidence of who they actually were. This is why turning the selfie trend into a positive way for girls and women to explore their real beauty is so important, and why in the recent
film, we asked mothers and daughters to take honest self-portraits – that meant no filters or editing whatsoever.
In March 2014, UK magazine Girl Talk ran a survey of their readers to find out how they'd like to be described and found the top answer was ‘pretty'. Because of this, editor Bea Appleby has vowed to take the magazine, aimed at 7 to 12-year-old girls, in a more feminist direction by launching the #girlsareamazing campaign. Appleby explained at the time: “We have a duty to show our readers different ways of being a girl and not just one narrow ideal.”
Given the key role media plays in girls' perceptions of themselves, it's really refreshing to see a publication asking ‘are we part of the problem?' and attempting to improve the way they talk to young girls.
A solution to hyper-sexualization would be for the media to celebrate girls and women for their skills, talents, determination and strength and not for how they look. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who has now become an advocate for education, is a great example of how girls are capable of, and most importantly are, changing the world. We should be creating a culture where girls and women are not objectified – where a woman's worth and value is not solely measured by her sexual attractiveness but instead acknowledges her gifts, personality and talents.
, founder of Sassyology.com, writer and author
Don't be overwhelmed by the phrases and terminology. Trying to remember terms like ‘selfie' or ‘sexting' is unimportant. What matters is that you talk to your daughter about how she feels about it and what she knows (but try to remain free of judgment). When you know what she knows, you'll be able to start a discussion from there.
Talk to her about her digital footprint. Whatever she uploads on to a phone or an internet site, once she hits ‘send' it's no longer private. And it stays out there forever. Be clear when talking to her, that if someone asks her for a nude photo, it might be because they like or fancy her, but it might also be because they want to humiliate or blackmail her. This is a great opportunity to talk to your daughter about respecting herself and her body both on and offline.
Discuss how hard it is not to do what everyone else is doing, whether it's getting drunk, taking drugs or circulating nude pictures of someone you know. Encourage her to make her own decisions and not just do what she thinks everyone else is doing.
Finally, if you feel intimidated by all this technology, you can find out more about what children might doing online, and how to handle it, at Thinkuknow.
Use these discussion points to help your daughter use social media safely and responsibly
Once you press send, it is no longer in your control. It can be posted anywhere on the internet and end up on sites meant only for adults.
Don't send anything you wouldn't want your parents, grandparents, teachers or friends seeing. Even if you completely trust someone, people using their phone might accidently see it.
Even if you use an app like Snapchat or a webcam (where images are automatically deleted after a matter of seconds) – the person can take a screen shot to keep the image.
Would you feel weird if you were going to do something sexual with them in person? Would you be able to have a conversation with them?
If you want to impress somebody, do it in other ways. In many cases, sending a sexual image can have the opposite effect and you risk being seen as somebody you're not.
More information from us
Dove Selfie video
Is your daughter’s perception of beauty distorted by the media?
Women in music videos: help your daughter press pause on female stereotypes
Celebrity culture: sorting the real reality from the hyper reality
Women in media: is it time to give the media stereotypes a makeover?
Useful information from elsewhere on the web
Sexualization of young people review
Dr Linda Papadopulous
American Psychological Association report on the sexualisation of girls
All Walks Beyond the Catwalk
Steve Biddulph’s Raising Girls
Sexualized pop culture failing to represent Black British women
The ‘selfie’: exploration or exploitation?
Article date: 27 June 2013
Review date: 27 June 2014
Dealing with media sexualization
Sexualized or empowered?
The fantasyland of women in music videos
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