The sexualization of girls in the media and society has rapidly increased in the past four decades and continues to climb, a Colorado College professor said in a lecture to USF students Friday afternoon.
Tomi-Ann Roberts’ presentation, “Little Bratz: The Sexualization of Girls and Girlhood,” was a summary of the findings of a 2007 study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Roberts, a psychology professor at Colorado College and a member of the task force, said the study revealed overwhelming evidence that girls suffer negative cognitive and physical effects from internalizing sexualizing messages, harming their self-image and healthy development.
“We were very careful not to align ourselves with the ultra-conservative, no-sex campaign,” Roberts said. However, she said healthy sexuality and sexualization are not the same.
The task force’s definition of sexualization included four key elements: that a person’s value comes from his or her sexual appeal or behavior; that a person is held to a narrow standard of physical attractiveness contingent upon sexiness; that sexual objectification in which the person is made into a thing for sexual use or commodity is present and that sexuality is imposed inappropriately on a person.
“The sexualization of girls contributes to the idealization of youth as the only good and beautiful stage of life,” Roberts said.
One of the major consequences of the proliferation of the sexualization of girls and girlhood is self-sexualization, she said, which occurs when girls and women internalize messages that their beauty, success and value are contingent upon their sexiness.
Roberts said these messages negatively impact women, to whom society preaches the value of youth and the keys to beauty and power, as well as girls who learn to constantly be concerned with their appearances and sexual attractiveness.
Self-sexualization results in a disproportionate amount of awareness and energy being focused on sexual attractiveness and disrupts mental and physical performance, Roberts said.
In one experiment, a group of women were left alone in a dressing room wearing bathing suits and issued a standardized test, while another group took the same test wearing sweaters. The women in the bathing suits performed significantly worse on the test than the women in sweaters. The same experiment was conducted with male subjects, who displayed only a marginal difference in performance.
In another experiment, middle school girls were tested individually on their ability to throw a softball. Roberts said the study revealed that girls with more self-objectifying views of their bodies threw the softball less effectively.
“There are physical and cognitive consequences to self-sexualization (because) chronic attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities,” she said. “Since physical activity leads to better overall health, sexualization keeps girls ‘in their place,’ limiting their movement in the world.”
Roberts said the task force gathered evidence from the media and other research, which demonstrated the widespread sexualization of girls and girlhood, based on its four-part definition of sexualization.
Roberts said consumer products were a major source of socialization and sexualization for girls. She cited the popularity of lacy undergarments, thong underwear and panties with sexual slogans, which would normally be reserved for adult women, are being marketed in stores for prepubescent, or “tween” girls. She said clothing with sexual messages such as “juicy” written on the butt or “hottie” and “objects under shirt are larger than they appear” written on the chest are products that brand girls as objects for sexual consumption.
“If these (clothes) are to be taken seriously, girls are tasty treats for boys and men,” Roberts said.
Dolls are another key product that embody sexualized representations of girlhood. She said the popular Bratz dolls, with their leather miniskirts, vinyl knee-high boots and heavy make-up, are the most prevalent example.
Roberts spoke of an instance during a trip to Berlin when she and her 7-year-old daughter passed through an area in which prostitutes were soliciting men on the street. She recalled in horror how her daughter pointed to one prostitute wearing tall vinyl boots and said, “Oh, mommy, they’re so pretty. They look just like my Bratz dolls.”
Roberts compared images of dolls that have undergone dramatic transformations over the past 10 years, including Barbie and the wild-haired Trolls (now Trollz). Both now sport the giant, sparkling eyes and oversized heads identified with Bratz, called infantilizing, or made to look like infants.
The media is also a major player in how girls regard their bodies and sexuality, Roberts said.
“We see that young girls exposed to the beauty ideals in fashion magazines and TV are less satisfied with their bodies,” she said, “and the more exposure, the more dissatisfaction.”
Despite the proliferation of sexualizing girls and girlhood, Roberts said there has been sustained resistance to the trend.
When Hasbro was in consultation with Isaac Larian, the head of the company that produces the Bratz dolls, to create a line of dolls modeled after the Pussycat Dolls – a burlesque troupe-turned pop band – for 6-to-8-year-old girls, grassroots campaigns led to the cancellation of the project.
Girls themselves resisted when, in 2005, a group of 13-to-16-year-old Pennsylvania girls protested the sale of T-shirts by Abercrombie and Fitch and actually halted the sale of two shirts containing the slogans “All Men Love Tig Old Bitties” and “Who Needs Brains When You Have These?”
Roberts said the task force recommended media literacy programs in schools and more open communication between parents and children about sexuality and girlhood as potential remedies to the negative consequences associated with the sexualization of girls.
Senior at USF and “Little Bratz” audience member Esther Davila said, “I didn’t know there were actual studies on this. I thought it was really interesting because (the sexualiztion of young girls) is a trend that I’ve noticed, and it really bothers me. I think it’s really important to look at the effects of it and hopefully make parents and society a little more responsible.”