The world of science often goes to great lengths to prove the obvious. The latest example is the American Psychological Association (APA), which released a report on Sunday that links hyper-sexualized images of girls and young women in the media with damage to girls’ healthy psychological development. The incessant drumbeat of these images of women in advertising, merchandising, movies and music videos can lead to depression, eating disorders, and poor self-esteem among girls, the researchers concluded.
Does this really come as a surprise? Everywhere they look, girls today are assaulted by images of adult women dressing as school girls in music videos, bikini-clad dolls in hot tubs, sexually-charged advertisements featuring teenagers, and commercials selling women as playthings. “As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings—ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls,” states Dr. Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the APA Task Force.
The doctor is absolutely correct, but I wish their recommendations went even further. Their task force calls on parents and school officials to help educate girls about the potentially damaging effects of the media. But as long as girls continue to absorb this content on a regular basis, “education” is completely insufficient. We can’t un-see things that we have seen, and they make an impact on our psyches. But if we can teach girls to avoid trans-fats because of the damage it does to their bodies, why can’t we teach them to tune out the music, television, movies and magazines that glamorize women-as-objects because of the damage it does to their emotional health?
I know that it’s hard to buck the tide of media saturation, but it can be done, and it is done, by families who, either because of their religious values or antipathy toward television, do avoid a lot of media consumption that would otherwise poison their girls’ self-assessment. It can, and should, be emphasized in schools, too.
Unfortunately, as long as there are models, actresses, and other female performers who are willing to bank on their sexuality for fun or profit, we will not be able to escape a lot of this shallow and degrading media. The women who willingly play along as models of male fantasy don’t realize how much they demean themselves and invite court unhappiness in their personal lives. Worse, those of them who become famous and, God help us, role models for some teenage girls, are guilty of spreading a culture of female objectification. All of this leads to unhappiness not only for women, but for men, too.
It’s striking that this report comes so soon after the death of former Playboy bunny-turned billionaire widow Anna Nicole Smith. As of this writing, her body is still being fought over in death as it may have been in life. Like so many other pretty young women, Smith chose to develop her body more than whatever other talents she may have had (there must have been some. . . ). She chose to build a career out of her sexuality, hoping for happiness and wealth. But it’s hard to enjoy wealth from the grave. Sure, the pathetic case of Anna Nicole Smith is extreme, but the cases of ordinary girls and women who confuse sexual glorification with fulfillment is depressingly common.
I know it was a long time ago, but I could have sworn that there had been a feminist movement in this country that had tried to get beyond the women-as-playthings concept. Where is the feminist outrage now?
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