Carl’s Jr. sells hamburgers with a commercial featuring Paris Hilton gyrating, and Abercrombie & Fitch sells clothes with naked models in their catalogs.
Sex can be used to sell anything, and as a result, the media is increasingly oversaturated with sexualized images of women and girls.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recently released a report on the numerous harmful effects that over-sexualized media has on young girls. The APA task force, headed by UC Santa Cruz’s own Eileen Zurbriggen, found over-sexualized images of young women rampant in all forms of media from television and movies to magazines and advertising.
The report concludes that this prevalence results in harm to the mental and physical health, sexual development, body image, and scholastic achievement of young women.
Sexualization, as defined by the report, is when someone is valued only for their sexual appeal or treated as a sexual object rather than a person with ideas, feelings, and thoughts.
Zurbriggen stresses that the report does not point any fingers at specific examples, but is meant to emphasize an utter inundation of sexualized images.
“If the only things you were exposed to were one [over sexualized] doll or wearing a miniskirt, that is unlikely to be a problem,” Zurbriggen told City on a Hill Press. “The issue is the abundance in all medias, and also the lack of alternative, positive images.”
Sex is a part of life that should by no means be taboo in the media, but its pervasiveness is inappropriate, especially when it comes to objectifying young girls to the point of jeopardizing their well-being. Young women are at a critical time of development and forming their identity, and yet their culture is providing them with predominantly sexualized models.
The APA report addresses this, but the question remains of how to change something so entrenched in everyday American life.
The report calls on parents and teachers to help children and teens become critical of the media and recommends that media literacy programs be instituted in all schools. Existing media literacy programs have proven very effective, but Zurbriggen says that few to none include a component on sexualization. Awareness of the problem is the first step in solving it, and learning media literacy from parents and teachers would help youth take media images with a grain of salt. But creating an aware consumer is only a precaution, and will not change the amount of sexualization.
The media itself must be held responsible for the images they sell, the girls they objectify, and the human sexuality they exploit for profit. The reality is that these businesses and individuals have the right to advertise however they want, despite questionable ethics. But it may prove easier to get a handful of corporations to change their ways than to change the mindset of hundreds of millions of individuals through enforcing media literacy.
It may be unlikely that every music video director, sitcom writer, toy manufacturer and advertising corporation would make a universal pact to resolve the over sexualization they promote. But some companies, like Dove with its “Real Beauty” campaign, have already joined this movement.
The APA report stresses that the consumer must be armed with critical skills, but the bulk of the responsibility is with the source of the problem and not the receiving end. The attention garnered by the report, and the interest in further research it has sparked, might just be enough to enlarge the bandwagon of corporations and media that are willing to change their ways, or at least balance sexualized images with positive alternatives.