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Girl Power

Early in my career, while working as a psychotherapist with adolescent girls and their families, I developed a passion for studying how exposure to various forms of media can shape child development. I learned that the negative effects of gender stereotyping and the sexualization of girls are more far reaching than most realize.

Several months ago, I was asked to join the Brave Girls Alliance, (BGA) a powerhouse global think tank of business owners, experts, authors and activists who have come together to promote the belief that girls deserve a childhood free of stereotyping and sexualization, the encouragement to reach their full potential, and the joy of knowing that there are many ways to be a girl.

The BGA recently launched a revolutionary awareness campaign, renting a billboard in Times Square that broadcasted more than 700 tweets from supporters around the world about what #BraveGirlsWant from media content creators. Then, on the United Nations International Day of the Girl, we were on the ground in Times Square and at the UN talking to girls, parents and the press about strategies to support healthier representations of women and girls in the media.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has led the charge to educate about the pervasive and insipid nature of the early sexualization of girls. An APA Task Force was formed in response to reports by journalists, child advocacy organizations, parents and psychologists. Their report concludes that the sexualization of girls is a broad and increasing problem and is harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development.

Sexualization is when a person’s value comes only from sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics and when a person is sexually objectified. Sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains:

  • Cognitive/emotional health: Sexualization and objectification undermine a girl’s confidence in and comfort with her body, leading to emotional and self-image problems.
  • Mental/physical health: Research links early sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women — eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
  • Sexual development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on a girl’s ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

The APA report states that examples of sexualization are found in all forms of media. So that begs the question, “How did we get here?” What is happening that we hardly notice that prepubescent girls wear sweatpants with princess, spoiled, diva or worse bedazzled across her backside? Why are girls as young as 5 being treated for eating disorders? How has every Halloween costume become a regurgitated combination of short skirts, lace-up corsets and fishnet stockings? Why do dolls marketed to 6 and 7 year olds have the affect and wardrobe of adult film stars?  Why would major retailers produce T-shirts that say Too Pretty to Do Homework” or thongs with “Call Me” emblazoned on them? It’s because we’re buying what they’re selling.

We brush this off. “What’s the big deal? It’s cute! She likes it! This is just how girls dress nowadays!” As parents, we have to be the ones to stop the madness. We need to stand up for our girls and be the ones who teach them that their worth and their value lie beyond how they look.

Gender stereotyping can lead to sexualization because of the way we pigeonhole what it means to be female. Our culture places a priority on being hot, and young girls are portrayed as sexy so unapologetically in the media that we have been tricked into thinking it is OK. We then shift our expectations of what it means to be a girl.

My friend and colleague, Melissa Wardy, was recently featured on Today, discussing this topic. She states, “Gender stereotypes impact both boys and girls as it teaches them a systematic way to place limitations on the people they meet. Gender stereotypes act like a pair of blinders, leaving the believer unable to see the personal characteristics, abilities and talents an individual may possess. When we do this to our kids, we damage their ability to experience and interact with the incredible people in the world around them.”

So how can parents navigate this new world and talk with kids about the real consequences of mindless media consumption? How do we help our girls grow and thrive in a culture that worships tabloids, reality TV and being skinny and sexy a priority over all else? How do we begin to challenge and reverse the gender stereotyping and sexualization of girls?

The prescription for this is media literacy. To prevent young girls from buying into the warped media mindset, we have to talk openly with them about what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. We must go beyond changing the channel or limiting Internet access.

With kids today logging 8-13 hours of media a day, they internalize what they see. It is our job to teach our children to think critically about what they see. Media literacy means challenging the constant barrage of negative media messages. It’s looking at advertising, TV, Internet, magazines, movies and newspapers with the blinders off.

Here are some ways your household can become more media literate, today:

  • Be aware of what kinds of content your kids are ingesting. Know passwords on phones, tablets and computers. Talk about what their friends are watching and sharing.
  • Question your kids regarding the shows they watch and websites they frequent.  Do they feel pressure to look a certain way, behave a certain way? Talk about it, challenge beliefs, show real interest, be present and say no when appropriate.
  • Promote higher-level thinking and critical analysis of media. Clarify that what we see is fake and aimed at getting us to buy something. Do your children know about product placement? Do they know about Photoshop? Don’t assume they know what’s real and what’s not. Teach them to challenge and question media content.
  • Make media time more engaging and interactive. Sit with them while watching TV or a movie. Pause a show or a commercial and ask, “What do you think about how they are treating each other? How do you feel when you see this? What do you think they are they trying to sell you?” When you go the store and your kids clamor for something that was on a commercial (Pillow Pets), ask them exactly why they want it. Will it truly fulfill a desire or need or do they want it because someone in the magic box said you had to have it?
  • Encourage kids to have more real-life experiences. Play sports, read books, play with friends and surround themselves with people who make them feel good about themselves.
  • Confront media content creators. Write letters or petitions to companies that appear to think it’s OK to sexualize or stereotype children.
  • Talk to other parents about these issues and band together in setting limits.

In this technological age, it is crucial that we as parents set the standards for our girls and their right to a childhood. It is never too late to talk to our daughters more openly about how they perceive themselves, how they treat others and how they allow themselves to be treated.

Dae Sheridan is a licensed mental health counselor, board certified clinical sexologist and a professor of human sexuality. She regularly presents her research and participates as an expert for television, Internet and other media outlets. Visit to learn more.

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