By: Heather Dawley-McClendon
Concerns exist today among parents, particular social groups, and the government that girls as young as seven are being introduced to sexual material, and this is affecting their psychological well-being in many different ways (Grabe & Shibley-Hyde, 2009). Adolescent girls are dealing with poor body image, eating disorder symptoms, depression, and anxiety, as well as reduced mathematical ability, logical reasoning, and spatial orientation (Grabe & Shibley-Hyde, 2009).
In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) authorized a task force to investigate the connection of entertainment with the sexual objectification of youth. Sexual objectification, according to Grabe and Hyde’s essay Body Objectification, MTV, and Psychological Outcomes Among Female Adolescents, is defined as “instances in which a person is made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than being seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making” (Grabe & Shibley-Hyde, 2009). According to the article That Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance, self-objectification occurs when individuals take on the perspective of another when viewing their own body, rather than an internal view (Fredrickson, 1998). In other words, they focus on what others see rather than what they are personally feeling or experiencing. The APA determined that the following factors distinguish sexual objectification from a healthy sexual identity:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual 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 sexually objectified; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person (American Psychological Association, 2011).
Only one of these needs to be present for it to be considered sexual objectification, and naturally, the final factor is the one that most characterizes adolescent girls. According to Body Objectification and Depression in Adolescents: The Role of Gender, Shame, and Rumination, self-evaluation is “characterized by vigilant monitoring or self-surveillance” (Grabe, Shibley-Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007). Self-objectification, self-surveillance, body objectification, and sexualization are often used interchangeably, although Grabe and co-authors (2007) argue that self-objectification is the result of extensive self-surveillance.
A bill was introduced in the Senate by Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that requests funding for research to examine the role that media play in sexual objectification and for programs that would educate and empower young girls combatting the harmful effects of sexual objectification. This bill states that most 8- to 18-year-olds use some form of recreational media for around ten hours a day. It also tells us that only 34% of girls report being very satisfied with their bodies, and that 60% compare their bodies to fashion models. Almost 90% of girls feel pressured by the fashion industry to be thin, 55% diet, 42% know someone who has purged after eating, 37% know someone diagnosed with an eating disorder and 31% acknowledged that they have starved themselves or refused food to lose weight. Fifty-five percent of third through fifth grade girls worry about their appearance, with 37% of those specifically about their weight (Hagan & Menendez, 2010). These numbers are concerning, to say the least. There has been little research to determine if there is a difference between races, socio-economic status, and gender in regard to the impact of entertainment on early sexualization.
The bill introduced by Hagan and Menendez, known as the “Healthy Media for Youth Act,” primarily addresses research and education. Both are highly necessary to give girls the tools they need to grow with a sense of security, value, and empowerment. The bill would give funds to research the impact the entertainment industry has on the development of youth, focusing on how girls are depicted and the effect that has on their cognitive, physical, and social behavior. It would also fund research that would focus on how perceptions and attitudes regarding the abilities, equality, appearances, and leadership potential of girls and boys are affected by entertainment depictions of women. The funds would also provide education to provide critical thinking skills, promote a balanced depiction of women in media, and counter the damaging effects already widespread.
The biggest concern about the bill was the provision that “the applicant will abide by any limitations deemed appropriate by the Secretary on any charges to individuals receiving services pursuant to the grant. As deemed appropriate by the Secretary, such limitations on charges may vary based on the financial circumstances of the individual receiving services” (Hagan & Menendez, 2010). In other words, programs that receive funds would be subject to limitations that the Secretary would impose in regard to how much they would be able to charge for educating youth. There is no definition of what is appropriate and what would constitute the need for limitations to be put in place. The solution to this ambiguity would be to make it more specific, yet open enough to benefit girls from all socio-economic backgrounds. Something like a sliding scale based on income might work, with a single cap limit set by the Secretary. That would allow for low-income families to utilize the services while also allowing girls from a higher income bracket family to receive services without either being turned away because of income restrictions.
The current version of this bill, introduced July 13, 2011, by Rep. Tammy Baldwin, can be found at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-2513.
Although there has been research demonstrating self-surveillance and objectification in college-age students, studies need to be conducted that sample adolescent girls and boys to determine if gender differentiates the objectification of oneself (Grabe, Shibley-Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007).
Psychologists, social workers, counselors, and other mental health workers need to be educated on the role that self-objectification takes in the development of young girls and armed with material and activities to counter the effects that entertainment has on girls at vulnerable stages (Grabe, Shibley-Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007).
Mentoring programs could be established to give adolescent girls a safe place to voice their concerns, fears, and desires and allow someone equipped with the knowledge, insight, and compassion to help them through difficult times relating to the prevalence of sexual objectification that they are exposed to on a daily basis.
Finally, programs ought to be put into place to educate parents. As L. Z. Ganderson aptly points out in his editorial, Parents, Don’t Dress Your Girls Like Tramps, children are not the ones with the money to spend on clothing that sexualizes them. It is the parents who are spending the money so that their young girls become objects of sexualization (Granderson, 2011). This is an area in which many parents seem to be in need of help in raising and educating their children.
Something has also been lost along the way with such a separation of generations that has come around with technology. Many children are very tech-savvy and have grandparents and parents who do not use much of the technology available. The differences over the last several decades have affected the inter-relations of the generations (Thornton, 2001). Because of this gap, youth are losing out on important, relevant information from their elders. A program to promote inter-generational relations and utilizing available family members of different generations to teach them to communicate and educate one another would be beneficial to youth. It would allow children to teach their elders how to use technology, and would encourage respect for others while broadening the knowledge base of youth with regard to communication, diversity, and personal character traits.
American Psychological Association. (2011). Sexualization of girls. Retrieved April 22, 2011, from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx#
Baldwin, T. (2011, July 13). H.R. 2513 Healthy Media for Youth Act. Retrieved December 14, 2011, from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-2513.
Fredrickson, B. R. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 269-284.
Grabe, S., & Shibley-Hyde, J. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2840-2858.
Grabe, S., Shibley-Hyde, J., & Lindberg, S. M. (2007). Body objectification and depression in adolescents: The role of gender, shame, and rumination. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 164-175.
Granderson, L. Z. (2011, April 19). Parents, don't dress your girls like tramps. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from CNN.com: http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/04/19/granderson.children.dress/index.html
Hagan, K., & Menendez, R. (2010, September 28). S.3852 Healthy Media for Youth Act. Retrieved April 22, 2011, from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s111-3852
Thornton, A., & Young-Demarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 1009-1037.
Heather Dawley-McClendon is a non-traditional student at Syracuse University in the School of Social Work. She is a member of Social Workers United on the campus and works with teen mothers through the Young Lives program in Syracuse, New York. She has three children from age 7 to 15—one son and two daughters.
From The New Social Worker, Winter 2012, Vol. 19, No. 1.