How often have you heard someone in a TV or movie express surprise that another character didn’t lose their virginity as a teenager? How many times have you seen older male characters hitting on much younger women? And how often have you looked at characters who are supposed to be teenage girls, but who look like they could easily be 25?
Sexualization of teenagers in our media has always been a problem, but we’re just now starting to realize the damage it causes. Read on to learn more about the impact of early sexualization and what you can do to fight it.
Where Sexualization Occurs
Sexualization is so embedded in our media that many times, we may not even recognise it when it comes in front of us. Something like a pageant where young girls are dressed in suggestive costumes can start to impress that sexuality. And you don’t have to look far in media to discover rampant over-sexualization of young people.
How often have you seen a movie where a high school girl is dressed like a college student at a frat party? How about a TV scene where a teenager is ridiculed for not being sexually active yet? And of course, pornography is egregious in this area; millions of videos exist where an eighteen-year-old actress is made up to look much younger, implanting the idea that looking at fourteen-year-old girls in a sexual context is natural and appropriate.
Even female superheroes are often dressed in revealing clothing and move in suggestive ways. In fact, female characters move so differently than male characters that when the roles are reversed, they look absurd to us. And if you’ve ever looked at male versus female armor in an action video game, you’ll notice that female armor has all sorts of "strategic" cutouts.
How Early It Begins
You would be shocked to discover how early the over-sexualization of young people begins. For instance, if you have kids, how many times has someone looked at your infant son and said he’s a stud? How many people have looked at your baby daughter and said she’s already breaking hearts?
That messaging continues into when the child is old enough to understand some of what’s being said. Thongs that say “Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink” are made in preschooler sizes. Dolls are shown in clothes like fishnet stockings, short skirts, and crop tops.
Why Girls Are Targets
You may have noticed that we’ve been focusing on media that sexualizes young girls. This isn’t because boys aren’t targets, too; in fact, we’ll discuss later the harmful impact that this sexualization has on boys. But girls tend to be the targets of direct sexualization and the violence that comes from that.
Part of the reason girls tend to be targeted so much more often than boys is partly circular. We live in a society that tells us that women are little more than glorified sex objects. This leads movie and TV directors, video game developers, advertisers, clothing designers, toymakers, and everyone else to create more products based on this stereotype, which further promotes the sexualization of children.
The Impact of Harmful Gender Stereotypes
This sexualization is also the basis for many damaging gender stereotypes. Women and girls are stereotypically portrayed as being sexually available and subservient to the man in their life. Men are expected to be the stoic protectors; as we’ll discuss in a moment, these stereotypes can not only damage relationships between men and women, but it can also contribute to violence.
Children look to media and the adults around them as role models for how to act. When they see those hypersexual stereotypes, they assume that that’s the accepted way to act and interact. And as they age, they continue receiving those messages from everything around them.
How Stereotypes Contribute to Violence
Gender stereotypes are a large part of the reason that one in six women is sexually assaulted, one in four women experience intimate partner violence, and more than one and a half million women were the victims of violent crime last year. Women believe that intimate partner violence is normal and okay because they are told their role is subservient. They are told that their value lies in their sexuality and nothing more.
Men are taught that women are a commodity there for their enjoyment. Consent is not important because as the man, they have earned the right to female attention. When women don’t conform to this passive sexuality, men are confused and angry, believing they have been cheated of something they have a right to.
Sexualization and Body Image Issues
This hypersexualization also gives women unrealistic expectations about what their bodies should look like. Women in TV and movies have body proportions that are incredibly hard to achieve – tiny waistlines, big busts, and rounded hips. And these characters spend a huge amount of time discussing how they want to be even thinner, how their body is what gets them love, and how men are the central focus of their lives.
When you get into video games and toys, things get even worse. Free of the constraints of reality, designers can create women whose beauty ideal is literally impossible to achieve. Facing all of these impossible role models, women and girls learn to see only the ways their bodies don’t measure up.
Health Risks of Body Image Issues
If body image issues don’t sound like that big a deal to you, you should know that every hour, another person dies from an eating disorder. At least 30 million people in the U.S. are living with an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, including depression.
And even outside eating disorders, women and girls may feel driven to do incredibly dangerous things to try to achieve the unrealistic beauty ideal they see in the media. The Kylie Jenner challenge is the least of these worries. Women may engage in dangerous fad diets, undergo painful and expensive cosmetic surgery, and even turn to substance abuse as a way to cope with the self-loathing they feel for not measuring up in this one all-important area.
Impact on Adolescent Boys
Now as we mentioned, teenage girls aren’t the only ones affected by this hypersexualization. Boys are taught from an early age that their role is as the stoic protector and the promiscuous stud. They are encouraged to shove down emotions, “take things like a man,” and get laid as often as possible.
This culture of toxic masculinity can lead to suppressed rage causing men to lash out violently against women. Boys may feel pressured to start experimenting sexually before they’re ready. And men, too, experience body image issues when they compare themselves to superheroes who have the proportions of a Dorito and the muscles of an early Captain America.
The Impact of Social Media
All of the pressures we’ve discussed so far have been around for decades, and in some cases centuries. But in the last decade or so, a new player has come onto the scene: social media. Now young people see impossible standards every waking hour of the day and from people who they perceive to be peers.
Instagram models can portray an unrealistic standard that teenagers feel pressured to live up to. Angles, filters, and Photoshopping can do wonders, but these images are portrayed as reality. And adolescents are getting on social media and starting to absorb those damaging messages younger and younger these days.
Below is a 3min video from BBC on this Topic. Best Video I could find which was short enough & covers key points, through it is 7 years old. However if you have a better reference let me know. I've felt there isn't a lot of information out there on this topic.
7 Ways to Help Decrease the Sexualisation In Media
1. Donate to Change-Making Organizations
If you’re like us, thinking about the rampant over-sexualization of your children makes you angry. So what can you do to help? One of the best things you can do is to donate to charity organizations that focus on improving gender representation in media.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media works to engage, educate, and influence media producers to stop stereotyping female characters and portray diverse female characters instead. SPARK aims to create innovative solutions to combat sexualization, objectification, and images of violence against women in media and society. And Together for Girls works to address harmful attitudes and social norms that condone violence against children.
2. Model Healthy Body Positivity
The other huge thing you can do to combat this sexualization is to model healthy body positivity for the kids in your life. Don’t talk about the weight you want to lose in front of them, and don’t criticize yourself for not appealing to people because of how you look. Kids listen, and they mimic what they hear.
If kids ask you if something about their bodies is normal, unless it’s a medical concern, tell them that it is a part of them and that makes it beautiful. Try to show them media that shows a diverse cast of characters who are treated in an age-appropriate manner. Most of all, treat your body as a wonderful vessel that carries you through life, not as a tool for winning love.
3. Buy Age-Appropriate Clothing
When you’re shopping for kids, it can be hard to avoid clothes that have an inappropriate sexual connotation. But work to find age-appropriate clothing, especially for girls. There’s no reason a five-year-old should be in a bikini; they aren’t old enough to make that decision about displaying their body in that way.
Don’t allow little girls to wear makeup or outrageous earrings. These things are tools to make women appear more attractive, and these children are too young to worry about how attractive they are. Wait until they’re old enough to make informed decisions about the way they present their bodies.
4. Push Back Against Sexualization from Outside Sources
Many times, it can be easy to sit back and keep your mouth shut while outside sources sexualize children. Even if you disagree with what’s being said, you may not want to cause a fuss. But we’d urge you to push back against those messages.
If someone comments that your baby is such a little heartbreaker, gently tell them that they’re too young for those comments. Try to avoid media that overtly sexualizes characters. And if your child does start asking questions about the way that certain characters are presented, be prepared to have a discussion with them about why it’s fine to like that character without needing to be just like them.
5. Teach Boys to Respect Women
A crucial step in breaking the cycle of sexualization and gender stereotyping in the media is to teach boys to respect women. Those boys will grow up to be men, and those men will grow up to produce the next generation of media. If they’re taught healthy values, they’ll pass those along to the next generation.
Teach the little boys in your life emotional intelligence; allow them to cry, and teach them to process those emotions. Teach them by example and by what you tell them to treat girls the same way they’d treat other boys. And when they start getting old enough to date, teach them that consent is essential to every step of a healthy relationship.
6. Teach Girls Non-Sexually-Based Self Esteem
Likewise, teaching girls from a young age that their value lies in more than their sexuality will start to disrupt these stereotypes. By keeping them in age-appropriate clothing, you’re already starting to break that stranglehold of over-sexualization. But it’s important to teach them value outside of sexuality.
Tell the girls in your life that they are beautiful, yes. But also teach them that their bodies are marvelous vessels that can run and dance and sing and laugh. And as much as you tell them that they are beautiful, tell them that they’re smart and powerful and brave and strong and that they can do anything.
7. Fight the Sexualization of Teens in Media
Early sexualization of children and teenagers in media is a dangerous trend, and it can lead to violence, mental health issues, and eating disorders. But by changing the narrative, we can change this for future generations. Teach your kids that value lies outside sexuality, and donate to organisations working to change the message.
If you’d like to tackle this or other difficult topics with your kids, check out the rest of our website at Or pass on my information to your school admin to Book a presentation today and start getting a more positive message out to your kids.
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