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What Messages Are We Sending to Young Girls?

At Blackburn Center, we have long focused on the impact of pop culture and media on our society. Starting nearly a decade ago with our “Media Hurts” campaign, we have sought to draw attention to the way that the degradation and objectification of women in media is linked to gender-based violence. New research from the University of Kentucky shows how this type of content has a serious impact on young girls.

Dr. Christia Spears Brown studied the impact of media messages to young girls, and found something disturbing: despite a focus on “girl power” in pop culture, the ultimate message that girls get from media is that sexiness is valued above all else. This messaging is connected to a belief that women are less than fully human.

In recent years, there has been a push for representation in pop culture. A range of books, TV shows, and movies are designed to show girls that they can do anything — and be anything. Yet despite these positive developments, most media carries the message that the best way for girls and women to have value is to be sexy.

This type of messaging starts at an early age, with one study finding that the just 38% of characters for 10 of the most popular television shows for elementary school girls were female. Yet 75% of the time, these girls were presented in a “sexy” way — wearing skimpy clothes, flirting with the male characters, and making comments about their own bodies. This demonstrates to young girls that they are less important than the boys (who are more often the main characters) — and that the only way that they can be important is to be attractive and flirtatious. A separate study found that female characters in children’s television shows are more likely to be thin and sexualized than male characters.

One consequence of this marketing is that young girls equate looking “sexy” with being popular and having a high status. Even before puberty, many young girls want to look sexy before they have any understanding of their own sexuality. They are not necessarily dressing this way to attract the attention of boys, but because they view it as a way to be popular. At the same time, research shows that children, teens, and adults view girls who dress in skimpy outfits and who wear heavy makeup are viewed as less nice, less smart, and less competent than girls who dress more conservatively.

This messaging leaves young girls believing that:

  • They have to be attractive and look sexy to be well-liked and popular; and

  • Looking sexy or attractive is incompatible with other traits, like kindness, athleticism and intelligence

Girls who want to wear sexy clothing and believe that being sexy will make them popular are also more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies. As a result, young girls may not only downplay their intelligence and stop doing activities they enjoy. They may also engage in disordered eating — all because of the messages that they are getting from the media that they consume.

For both boys and girls, exposure to highly sexualized images of women and sexualized media can significantly change their perspective. This includes buying into myths about sexual assault, like believing that a woman is “asking for it” if she wears suggestive clothes. Children who are exposed to this type of media are also more likely to believe that women who are sexualized are less than full human and less worthy of deserving help.

Despite a push towards television shows, movies, and books that champion “girl power,” it is clear that media still hurts. The content that our kids are consuming can change their outlook — and even the course of their lives. We can do better.

How can you fight back against these media messages? Start by refusing to purchase or view media that degrades women or promotes violence against women. For children, keep a close eye on what they are watching — and talk to your kids about negative messages that TV shows may send about girls. Demand new, better content for our children — and for all of us. To learn more about how you can become a conscious consumer of media, visit our Media Advocacy page.


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