Too Young, Too Soon, Too Bad

Skipping Girlhood?

(photo: CNS photo from Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Products such as Bratz dolls clad in leather mini-skirts abound on the market for girls under age 10. Teen magazines and television shows promote underdressed celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears as role models. A porn actress writes a best-selling autobiography, and pre-teen girls show up at her book signings.

Parents have long expressed concern that their daughters are being “sexualized” by merchandise and mass media.

Sex sells, and it is increasingly being used to market clothing, toys and entertainment to young girls.

But is society selling these girls short? What are the long-term implications of teaching a child that she must look and behave like a sexual object to be fashionable or popular?

The American Psychological Association addressed the issue in a recent study. It formed a task force to define sexualization, examine its prevalence and provide examples in society and in cultural institutions. The task force also set out to evaluate the evidence suggesting that sexualization has negative consequences for girls and for society. It described positive alternatives to help counteract it.

The report, published Feb. 19, defined sexualization as something “occurring when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified.” Results showed that every media form contributed to the sexualization of girls and young women by portraying them in a sexual manner more often than boys and men.

Task force member Sharon Lamb, co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes, said marketers play a significant role in sexualizing girls. “They are reaching down to younger and younger girls, selling a version of what it means to be a teenager,” she said. “According to them it is all about being hot and sexy.”

The task force also found that parents, teachers and peers may also contribute to the sexualization by conveying the message that physical appearance is the most important goal for a girl. The study went on to suggest that girls may also play a part in sexualizing themselves by wearing clothing to make them look “sexy,” thus viewing themselves as sexual objects.


The American Psychological Association’s report concluded that sexualization was damaging to all women, but particularly to younger girls who are still forming a sense of self. Negative effects include increased risks of depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. It also discussed the negative impact the sexualization of girls can have on society as a whole as it affects other groups, including men and boys.

Catholic psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons sees narcissism in our culture with the worship of the body. He points to media outlets such as MySpace and YouTube.

“These Internet programs contribute to a person believing their identity is determined by their body,” he said. “A girl typically puts pictures of herself online to get attention and comments from others. Some girls get so caught up in the Internet culture, their own self-worth is measured by how their Internet ‘friends’ view their physical appearance.”  

Citing John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Families, Fitzgibbons explained that permissive parenting can cause a girl to succumb to sexualization. “Girls are at risk when parents fail to correct selfishness, form modesty and monitor friendships,” he said.

The task force recommends educating parents on the dangers of sexualizing girls and urges them to become more involved in viewing media with their children. The task force also encouraged organized groups to step up and confront the issue by offering girls “practical and psychological alternatives to the values conveyed by popular culture.”

“If marketers and the media assume more of a social conscience, this sexualization of girls can be prevented,” said Lamb. “Parent protests and support of watchdog groups are also important.”

Joseph D’Agostino of the Population Research Institute, a non-profit research and educational organization, asserts that the American Psychological Association’s report stops short by failing to mention the sexualization of girls as a result of the feminist movement. In a weekly briefing, he wrote, “The politically correct view is that the sexualization of girls and feminism are opposing forces, but in fact they have gone hand-in-hand.”

D’Agostino attested that feminism teaches girls that chastity oppresses them and a girl must liberate herself sexually to be equal with men.

“They have taught that there are no natural limits to sexuality,” he wrote. “Based on feminist principles, why shouldn’t little girls sexualize themselves? And why shouldn’t adult men and women view them as sexual if there is no such thing as unnatural sexuality?”

Fitzgibbons said parents must “grow in wisdom as authoritative parents.” He also encouraged priests and Catholic educators to “communicate the truth about sexual morality and warn of the dangers of the sexual utilitarian philosophy and the contraceptive mentality.”

Reaching Out

Fitzgibbons recommends reading John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Families and his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), as well as teaching children the truth about human sexuality.

“An excellent resource is Theology of the Body for Teens by Jason Evert, Brian Butler, Mark Hart and Crystalina Evert from Ascension Press,” he said.

Catholic groups have recognized this crisis and are reaching out to young women. Pure Fashion, an organization that helps women ages 14-18 “embrace their authentic beauty and innate dignity as children of God, focuses on guiding young women to live the virtues of modesty and purity in their schools and communities.”

According to Rhonda Boyle, Pure Fashion’s national assistant, the program is designed to combat the sexualization of girls through fashion.

“We are working hard,” she said, “to change our culture by creating role models who will live a life of purity and modesty in fashion in their schools, churches and communities.”

Bethany Noble is based in

Phoenix, Arizona.