Sexualizing girls

The American Psychological Association says pop products like the Pussycat Dolls harm girls' development.

Published February 20, 2007 6:10PM (EST)

A reader just alerted us to what she termed a "no shit" study just released by the American Psychological Association's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which found that -- guess what -- being constantly bombarded by images of scantily clad, sexualized females has a detrimental psychological effect on girls. The study, which uses examples like the Pussycat Dolls and Christina Aguilera's Skechers ad (in which she's dressed as a schoolgirl, licking a lollipop with her blouse partially unbuttoned), asserts that "ample evidence ... indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and attitudes and beliefs."

Most women who grew up with access to a television would probably instinctively agree with the APA's assertions. But it's good to have some solid research behind your gut feeling that poring over a Victoria's Secret catalog is not going to do wonders for one's body image. And the study report contains some interesting nuggets -- for example, in a study that investigated magazine advertisements over a 40-year period, 1.5 percent of ads portrayed children "in a sexualized manner" -- but of those ads, 85 percent sexualized girls instead of boys.

The report also mentions a particularly fascinating study in which college students were put into dressing rooms and asked to "try on and evaluate" either sweaters or bathing suits. Then the subjects were left alone for 10 minutes, while still wearing the sweaters or the bathing suits, and asked to complete a math test. The women wearing swimsuits did "significantly worse" than their sweater-wearing counterparts; among men, there was no difference in performance. The APA concludes that this study demonstrates that "thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity" -- which happens more frequently in young women than in men.

This probably doesn't constitute breaking news for anyone who, uh, lives in America. But I'm happy that the APA came out with the study to put solid research and a reputable name behind what seems like it should be common sense. It also gives me something to quote when readers send in tips like this article from Wired News, about fetish cafes in Japan where "geeks" can use binoculars and hand mirrors to ogle their waitresses as they prepare food or request handcuffs or striptease treatment from their servers. (Here's that particular restaurant's actual Web site. "OL" stands for "office lady" -- a generic term for female workers -- and is a reference to the restaurant's inspiration: a '90s TV show about six OLs.)

Harmless fun? Not according to the APA.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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