In 2008, the American Psychological Association released a report called The Sexualization of Girls. They made a case that the onslaught of sexualized images in media and pop culture has created a mental health crisis, evidenced by the increased levels of depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders in young girls.
Turn on the television and you'll find girls as young as 5 glam-ed up with everything from a spray tan to a full face of makeup on TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras. Flip through a magazine and you see grown women posing sexually with pigtails, wide eyes and mock innocence. Women are constantly told to strive to look younger/thinner/sexier throughout their lives. The message that "being yourself is never good enough" fuels advertisers, who make money on the self-doubt of women.
My latest documentary, America the Beautiful III: The Sexualization of Our Youth, sharply questions the highly sexualized media we consume and how it affects our youth. But how deeply does it harm the young girls growing up with this imagery all around them?
The statistics are alarming:
• Ninety-five percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
• Women are much more likely than men to develop an eating disorder. Only an estimated 5 to 15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male.
• Approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies, and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape.
The way in which women are commonly portrayed in music videos, films, and advertising is not just disrespectful and sexist, it's at the root of a mental health crisis.
Feminism (or more accurately a watered down version of it) has become nothing more than a "brand" for pop stars and advertisers to exploit for financial gain. They spin self-sexualization that co-opts the imagery of the male gaze as a form of empowerment. Even when we witness ads that seem to have a sweet girl power message and no obvious sexism, we can't forget how less than 5% of advertising creative executives are women.
In a recent Salon article, Emily Alford deftly described this contradictory advertising dynamic on full display during New York's Advertising Week. She highlighted Under Armour's recent ad "I Will What I Want", featuring the accomplished ballerina Misty Copeland. Alford writes, "At the end of the ad, the crowd cheered: for femvertising, for Copeland, and for an ad that gets it right when it comes to women, never mind that the creative team who made the Misty Copeland ad at Droga5 was comprised of 56 human beings, only 11 of them women, and was, in essence, a lot of men telling women what they think women probably want to hear."
In a recent interview with Entertainment Tonight, Geena Davis, actress and head of the Institute on Gender in Media, was also interviewed. One of the most powerful things about the institute is their motto, "If they see it, they can be it," meaning young girls look at the media along with the world around them, to see what they can aspire to be.
To paraphrase Davis, if we can change what girls see early on, we can change how they feel about themselves later in life. Otherwise, if they are only seeing that even the most successful and powerful women also need to be sexualized to get ahead, what do you think they will do?
With my documentary I hope to foster more honest conversations about this crisis, especially between parents and their children. Adults need to highlight for the young women and men in their community that looks aren't the center of their worth as a human being.
We need to teach girls and boys to question the media they consume. As adults, we also need to question what kind of media we support and the examples we are putting out into the world.
Combating the status quo and demanding more from the media we consume is only one part of addressing the mental health crisis engendered by the over-sexualization of young girls. The other part is to hold ourselves, and the people we know, accountable to make visible changes in the world around us.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.