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Media portrayals of girls linked to health issues

February 21, 2007

Photo of Deborah TolmanA new American Psychological Association report, written in part by Professor of Human Sexuality Studies Deborah L. Tolman, found evidence that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising and media causes harm to girls' self-image and healthy development.

Tolman, director of the University's Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, is one of six members of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which was charged with producing the report.

The task force defines sexualization as occurring when a person's value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a "thing" for another's sexual use.

"In our society, the sexualization of girls is so pervasive that it can feel normal for young girls to look like teenagers and for teenagers to look like older women," Tolman said. "Sexualized images are projected to suggest sexual availability to the exclusion of other personal characteristics and qualities, which is inappropriate for any female."

The report, released Feb. 19, found evidence that the sexualization of girls negatively affects girls and young women in several ways: cognitive functioning, mental health, physical health and healthy sexual development.

The report encourages parents, school officials and health professionals to be alert for the potential impact of sexualization on girls and young women.

"We encourage parents to engage in media with their children, whether it's listening to music with them, watching television or surfing the Internet," Tolman said. "Talk about how marketing techniques make girls' and women's bodies look unnatural and focus people's attention on their bodies as if that is all that is valuable about them. Get kids to question what they are seeing and hearing, and how they may be feeling about their own bodies and their own abilities."

Tolman, who is recognized nationally as a researcher on adolescent sexuality and mental health, added that the report illustrates the need for more research on the impact of sexualization on girls and how the effects differ for girls and women of different backgrounds.

The members of the APA task force studied published research on the content and effects of virtually every form of media, including television, music videos, music lyrics, magazines, movies, video games and the Internet. They also examined recent advertising campaigns and merchandising of products aimed toward girls.

The task force's report and recommendations for parents is available on the APA Web site.

The Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, based in SF State's National Sexuality Resource Center, is dedicated to producing and sharing knowledge about sexuality and gender. CRGS develops innovative questions, methods and theories to promote social justice and well-being and to diminish inequalities and violence stemming from prejudices concerning race, sex, class, age, ability and sexual orientation.

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified February 21, 2007 by University Communications