What horrible thing did mom do this time?
She requested that a picture of her 13-year-old daughter in a teeny bikini be taken off Facebook. So embarassing, right? What was she thinking?
Most parents of pre-teen and teen daughters can relate. Several months into summer, how many of you have newly minted teen daughters posting pictures online of themselves looking adorable in their bathing suits? The images are (mostly) innocent, showing how much fun they are having in camp, on vacation, at the local pool. They are undeniably beautiful and as parents we are proud of how they have grown.
Does it make you a little uncomfortable? Do you have a vague sense it’s not OK to distribute these images of their bodies, but you aren’t sure why? Perhaps you keep quiet because “everyone is doing it” and you don’t want to get into a fight with them. Perhaps you have resigned yourself to this new normal in a social media age.
Now obviously you need to make your own decisions for your family, reflective of your personal values and beliefs. If you think I’m making too much of a fuss over nothing, you might want to stop reading here and move on with your day. But if you share my niggling feeling of discomfort when you see those scantily clad 13-year-old bodies (often looking like 18-year-olds) paraded about for full public consumption, read on.
But first, I know some of you will ask why I am focusing just on girls and not on boys. Don’t half-naked images of boys cause problems too?
Perhaps. And that would be a great post topic too. But the research overwhelmingly suggests that our culture’s messages to girls about their sexuality is much more narrowly defined than it is for boys, and potentially much more damaging. Check out this quote from the American Psychological Association’s report on the Sexualization of Girls:
In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.
In some studies, the focus was on the sexualization of female characters across all ages, but most focused specifically on young adult women. Although few studies examined the prevalence of sexualized portrayals of girls in particular, those that have been conducted found that such sexualization does occur and may be increasingly common. For example, O’Donohue, Gold and McKay (1997) coded advertisements over a 40-year period in five magazines targeted to men, women or a general adult readership. Although relatively few (1.5 percent) of the ads portrayed children in a sexualized manner, of those that did, 85 percent sexualized girls rather than boys. Furthermore, the percentage of sexualizing ads increased over time.
So what does it mean to let our tweens and young teen girls depict themselves in tiny bathing suits on Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter?
Posting these images means you lose control of how you are seen. Images can be copied, modified (putting bigger breasts, changing faces, adding sexual overtones, etc.) and distributed beyond their control. Any image of a girl or woman on the Internet runs this risk, but one that is already sexualized will get even more attention.
Young girls and teens are not mature enough to handle the repercussions of broadcasting their sexuality. I have heard many stories of bullying, disturbing replies with sexual overtones, dissemination of images (sometimes modified) to pornography sites, stalking and generally creepy behaviour. A 13-year-old with the body of an 18-year-old may get attention she is not ready to handle.
It has clear cognitive consequences. The research has repeatedly shown that self-objectification detracts from the ability to focus and concentrate one’s attention. Several studies have shown that girls who dress scantily underperform on math tests and other assessments of focus, showing a clear disruption of mental capacity (Tweet this). (As an aside, these findings also offer more supporting evidence for school uniforms and girls’ only schooling). No differences were found for young men. Make no mistake that the girls posting these images of themselves are aware of what they are showing – the thought process going into these picture posts are totally different than posting themselves in sweatpants or winter jackets.
It leads to anxiety and self-esteem issues. You might think all those barely dressed girls are super-confident, right? Wrong. The research shows that self-objectification in 12 and 13-year-old girls led to feelings of shame, anxiety about their appearance and even self-disgust. Moreover, studies have repeatedly shown that sexualization leads to three of the most common mental health issues for teen girls and adult women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression (Abramson & Valene, 1991; Durkin & Paxton, 2002; Harrison, 2000; Hofschire & Greenberg, 2001; Mills, Polivy, Herman & Tiggemann, 2002; Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw & Stein, 1994; Thomsen, Weber & Brown, 2002; Ward, 2004).
The sexualization of girls makes them less likely to use condoms and has overall negative impact on sexual health. Objectification is objectification after all. When girls come to see their bodies as things to be displayed and used, they are less likely to assert themselves in healthy ways.
It impacts their attitudes and beliefs about women. Girls who are exposed to sexualized images of female bodies (and arguably, who perpetuate those themselves) are more likely to endorse stereotypes of women as sexual objects. They place appearances at the centre of a woman’s value. These may well affect their personal sexual relationships, their life choices and their health.
These images have a negative impact on boys. They teach them to see girls in exclusively sexualized ways. It’s bad enough that teen boys can access an array of soft and hard core porn images on the Internet that adults would have had trouble finding even 10 years ago, but when they begin to see images of their female friends and girlfriends posed in similar scantily clad, sexualized ways on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or other social sites, then it reinforces a narrow, dangerous view of women as sexual objects. Research reports that this creates damaging expectations of sexual promiscuity and performance for teen boys as well, and may lead to more sexual harassment and violence.
So what should parents do?
- Discuss your views and values with your kids. Explain your concerns about these images.
- Clarify your expectations for posting pictures online. Be very specific. Show them the kinds of images that are OK for you to show (maybe in a bathing suit with a cover-up or a head and shoulders shot, or sitting down in a group).
- Show them how to adjust their Facebook settings so all pictures of them tagged by friends have to be sent to them for approval first. That way they can remove tags of inappropriate pictures.
- Ask friends to take down images of your kids that make you uncomfortable.
- Maintain an open dialogue about sexualized images of women in the media. (About Face is an excellent site to visit.)