The sexualization of young girls is an ongoing problem in America that’s leading to a myriad of problems, from exposing girls to societal pressures to perpetuating sexualized violence. Sexualization is negatively impacting many girls’ cognitive functioning as well as their physical and mental health.
The sexualization of young girls occurs when individuals or when a society explicitly or implicitly demonstrates that a girl’s value comes only from her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, or when she is sexually objectified, or when sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon her.
Sexualization in the Media
Sexualization is everywhere: in children’s TV shows, in movies, in ads, in video games, in retail, in marketing campaigns, in social media posts, in pornography, and more. Girls are often pressured by society to be more sexually attractive to members of the opposite sex and to wear tighter clothing, post sexier images, act more feminine, and engage in inappropriate behaviors like watching porn or sexting.
Boundaries are constantly being pushed by the media and by individuals. We see female celebrities wearing provocative clothing in music videos, on award shows, and on social media. Even if these women are strong role models, the way they dress, pose, and engage in sexually-charged conversations can be very impactful on girls.
When girls are exposed to numerous unrealistic media portrayals of girls their age, this can easily lead to internal conflict, confusion, and/or self-loathing.
Unless girls can develop a health understanding of what they are seeing or hearing—and knowing that media portrayals of women don’t mean they have to change themselves—they can easily start to internalize and interpret these portrayals in unhealthy ways.
Sexualization by Individuals
Aside from the explicitly sexual portray of young girls and women in the media, oftentimes friends, family members, or acquaintances may sexually objectify a young girl in their lives without even realizing it.
For instance, if a young girl is called words like “sexy,” or taught to only act or behave in a certain way that is more submissive, we are implicitly teaching girls to objectify themselves, not to act in a way that feels right for them, but rather in a way that defines them through an objectifying and patriarchal lens.
We may not even realize we’re teaching our girls to act differently from their male counterparts—likely, many of us were raised with certain stereotypes about women intact and don’t even realize it.
It’s incredibly valuable to become aware of what you are saying to a young woman in your life. Be careful not to imply that she is only valued for her body, the way she looks, or how “femininely” she presents herself.
Girls, in general, experience more mental health issues than boys and sexualization often factors into the way girls identity themselves and measure their self-worth. When girls experience sexualization or objectification first-hand, it can stir up a wide-range of emotions. Depending on the severity of the instance, it can lead to anxiety, depression, or even PTSD.
The ongoing sexualization of young girls is perpetuating gender stereotypes and leading many girls to experience various health and mental health issues. Some of the most common include low self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
Oftentimes these mental health issues are symptoms themselves, arising from girls internalizing the sexualization they receive from others. They likely don’t know what is going on, let alone how to address this outwardly.
Not knowing how to interpret the sexualized information they’re receiving about themselves and their bodies, girls may turn inwardly, inflicting harm on themselves to release the massive stresses they are experiencing.
Self-esteem is crucial and when girls have low self-esteem, they can experience sensitivity to criticism, the desire to withdraw from social events, hostile behavior, exhaustion, migraines, negative self-talk, and more.
Girls struggling with low self-esteem are more likely to struggle in school and with social situations. This can lead to low grades and problematic decision-making.
Adults tend to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety, but girls may not know what they’re experiencing. If girls are avoiding sleepovers or birthday parties, having trouble following directions at school, experiencing outbursts of anger, nail biting, lip chewing, frequent urination, restlessness, changes in eating habits, or irritability, then they could be experiencing anxiety, which varies in severity.
Eating disorders are multi-faceted—they can stem from numerous issues such as poor body image, low self-esteem, anxiety, perfectionism, trauma, and more.
Societal beauty standards are a major culprit as well, as girls are often seeing certain body types in the media that may not resemble their own.
Signs of an eating disorder can include excessive exercise, unusual food habits like restriction of food intake or excessive food intake, high levels of stress, sudden weight changes, and more.
On average, girls experience depressive episodes more often than boys, and many episodes begin at a very young age. Depression can occur for any number of reasons, but the most common signs include feelings of hopelessness, anger, or irritability, as well as low energy, extreme sensitivity to rejection, self-criticism, and/or loss of interest in family, friends, or school activities.
Girls, some studies show, are more likely to self-harm than boys. Whenever a girl intentionally injures herself, this is considered self-harm. This could include cutting or burning the skin. If you suspect a girl is self-injuring, then it’s important to tell a parent, counselor, or mental health professional as soon as possible.
For teens, suicide is a leading cause of death and in recent years, the rates have risen rapidly in the female youth population. Some of the warning signs include depression, withdrawal from family or friends, drastic personality changes, distress, rebellious behavior, or a history of substance abuse or mental illness. If a girl has given away her favorite possessions or has talked about suicide, even in a joking manner, this could be a sign that she’s dealing with suicidal thoughts.
Many girls deal with mental health issues that go unnoticed. It’s important to pay attention to drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, and likes or dislikes.
If a girl loves playing soccer, but suddenly hates it and wants nothing to do with it, you should find out why.
“Sexual objectification dehumanizes girls and women, which contributes toward rape culture and violence against women,” says Carrie Baker, J.D., Ph.D., author of Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics and The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment.
When girls are viewed, portrayed, or treated as objects, they start to self-objectify and this can be psychologically damaging, especially when the girls begin to value physical attractiveness or sexual worthiness above intelligence and personal well-being. When a young girl suffers from poor mental health, she becomes vulnerable to manipulation, false promises, violent acts, and mistreatment.
All girls, regardless of social standing or geographical location, are susceptible to sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, prostitution, and sex trafficking, all of which can stem from sexualization.
Studies show that girls and women make up 80% of sex trafficking victims in the United States. Many times, girls are forced into trafficking through violence, threats, and even marriage. Others are lured into the industry with gifts, false promises, and/or lies in which a trafficker is offering financial support, romantic love, or another misleading opportunity.
Ending the Sexualization of Girls
Girls are being sexually exploited all across the country and even the world. Putting a stop to the sexualization of girls requires many systematic and societal changes.
Employing more women in the media and in politics, for instance, could help ensure that moving forward, more realistic portrayals of women in the media and more protective laws for women are enacted and will safeguard our young girls. In addition, on the personal level, you can become more aware of how your actions or the actions of your loved ones could be affecting a young girl in your life.
If you wish to support and empower girls, you can provide the following: mentorship, programs or activities that build self-esteem, access to mental health services, and more. The more we talk about the problems associated with sexualization, the better.
“#MeToo has generated conversations about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent that contribute toward more awareness among girls of their right to bodily autonomy. Adult women who speak out and claim their right to be free from sexual harassment and assault serve as role models for girls,” says Baker.
Ultimately, the only way to prevent sexualized-based violence is to end the demand for child porn, prostitution, and underage trafficked victims, but as an individual, you still have the power to change the narrative.
Girls need to understand the relevancy and the power of sexualization so they can mentally and physically protect their overall health and well-being.
A Word From Verywell
If you want to end the sexualization of young girls, you need to rethink your actions, behaviors, and words. Unfortunately, technology has made sexualization of young girls that much more rampant, making many of our jobs that much harder.
As a parent, one of the best things you can do is talk to your child (regardless of gender) about the harms of sexualization, and if you see signs of a mental health issue, contact a professional right away. If you suspect a girl is engaging in self-harm or thoughts of suicide, you’ll want to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via online chat, or call them at 800-273-8255.