What you need to know about sexualization of girls

I fondly remember dancing along to the Pussy Cat Dolls thinking “If only I could look like them, I could finally be somebody”.

I feel kinda sad about that statement now, but at the time I was just the right age to believe what they were selling: That if only I were like them, life would be so easy, so amazing.

It was a strange time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s; women were increasingly being told they could be “empowered”, but the version of empowerment was pretty narrow. It was more like “be super super impossibly sexy and then maybe someone (like a man) will pay attention to you”.

For many young women like myself at the time, what we heard was “if a man pays attention to you, you finally matter”.

Ouch.

What is the sexualized media like nowadays for girls?

Well…a little different in that it’s not so much about being noticed by a man, but rather it’s about being noticed at all. And I think that might be even sadder.

So in today’s newsletter let’s tackle what this means for you as a parent, teacher, or coach and how you can help young girls and women know their value without having to buy into being sexy as the only thing that matters.

Let me introduce you to two pretty spectacular scholars: Zoe Peterson and Sharon Lamb. Both of these incredible humans have dedicated their careers to exploring young girls’ sexual empowerment.

I bet that’s a term that makes you step back a bit! Sexual…empowerment? In young girls???

Yup! We’re going there.

In my PhD work I poured through their research as if it were the holy grail. My favourite thing about their work is that they take completely opposing views and I actually can’t decide to this day which side I’m on. That’s how convincing their work is. Let me share it with you:

But first, a short lesson.

What is Sexualization, exactly?

You’ve heard the term. It’s everywhere!! And usually it comes in the context of a news article like “Sexualized images are killing our girls”.

I mean that would make me perk up and pay attention for sure!

Sexualization is a clever word. It’s actually two words put together: “sexual” and “socialization”.
Now socialization is something we all want for our kids. We want to socialize them so they aren’t awkward, so they know proper boundaries, so they can make decisions about how to act and treat others. The same way we would socialize a puppy to not be afraid of the world and not attack everything, we socialize our kids; through school, sport, friendships and generally taking them into the world.

The word that concerns many parents is the “sexual” part. We don’t like that word when it is associated with younger people. And for good reason. We want to ensure that “sexual” stuff doesn’t factor into a child’s life until they fully understand it and are ready to choose for themselves and can handle the consequences.

The problem is, the world – and the media – isn’t exactly waiting on your timeline. Kids are seeing these images by the time they are the ripe old age of…toddler. Yup. So turns out we can’t wait until they are “old enough”…we have to deal with it now. No matter how uncomfortable we feel.

So let me reassure you:

When I say “sexualization”, what I am referring to is how we socialize our kid’s sexuality. How we help them to know who they are, what they want, when they are ready, and what boundaries they want to have.

Actually, that sounds pretty healthy!

When you hear the word sexualization in the media, you are hearing one part of the story: The part that rightfully acknowledges that images that depict girls as only valuable when they are sexy is harmful to our girls wellbeing.

But there is another side to the story, and that’s where Zoe Peterson and Sharon Lamb come in. They have looked at whether being exposed to some sexuality can actually help girls develop a healthy sexuality. This is what they mean by being “empowered sexually”; being able to make choices, being able to say what they want and don’t want, being able to say no and be respected, being able to say yes (when they are ready, without pressure) and still being respected…

Here’s where it is complicated:

Zoe’s point of view is that if girls dress sexy, because they see it getting accolades, likes, and attention, and that makes them genuinely feel good and powerful, then we shouldn’t prevent girls from having those feeling. If that is the only option available to girls, and we take it away, what do girls have left to feel they matter?

Sharon’s point of view is that feeling empowered and good is fine, but it’s not the same thing as actually having power! That the more girls dress or act in a certain way to feel good, the less they are actually learning to fight for better treatment and more options. She wants us to risk what girls feel in the moment, so that girls in the future can truly thrive.

And…they kind both have a good point.

I’m wondering where you stand?

If you want to know more and, like me, are super curious about how to navigate young girls, sexualized images, the effects it has on them, the opportunities for their growth, and what we absolutely need to do as parents, teachers and coaches, then you probably want to check out our on-demand course on Sexualization & Social Media.