Girlhood: Raising Children in a Culture of Objectification

Elissa Wu, M.A.

The Bechdel Test, originally based on Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, “The Rule”, critiques contemporary cinema by questioning if a film has at least two women who talk to each other about anything other than a man. Although a seemingly simplistic standard, it is astounding how many films, let alone critically acclaimed films, do not pass this test (e.g. less than half of the top 50 films in 2013; roughly half of 2013 Oscar nominated films). The motive behind the Bechdel Test is not to merely increase the number of women on the big screen, but to assess the complexity, depth, and range of their roles and storylines.

It is apparent that women’s representation in the media is highly sexualized. Women have been most prominently valued for their appearance in nearly every form of media: magazines, ads, television, movies, music, video games, etc. Women are regularly portrayed in a sexual manner and are treated as objects, often with a specific focus on body parts (Graff, Murnen, & Krause, 2013). Now with the rise of social media outlets--Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. –children and teens are not only influenced by media messages of objectification, they are able to mimic and recreate what is seen, thereby learning that the way to be noticed is to objectify oneself. Celebrities, once distant figures that are read about in magazines and seen in the movies, now garner cult-like followings on social media sites like Instagram where teens can post their own “selfie” in order to create their own celebrity experience. A common critique of social media is that it’s contrived; people present their best selves and their most beautiful selves (which is often narrowly and unrealistically defined). The message is essentially that if you wear the right clothing, put on enough makeup, and take a picture at just the right angle, you too can look like Kim Kardashian. As deceptive as that message is, perhaps the most harmful aspect of a culture of objectification is the implication that women should be seen and not heard.   

Clinical and Social Implications

Research has linked the relationship between media consumption and ideals of thinness with increased levels of eating disorders, body image dissatisfaction, cutting, and symptoms of depression (Erchull, Liss, & Lichiello, 2013; Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008). Girls who objectify themselves have been shown to perform more poorly academically and to experience discomfort and shame with one’s own body. Sexual well-being is also impacted as girls who self-objectify are less assertive about their sexual boundaries and are less likely to use contraceptives. Researchers have also studied the ways in which the objectification of women and exposure to sexualizing media shapes sexist attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors as well as contributes to sexual and gender violence (Purcell & Zurbriggen, 2013). Moreover, the sexualization of women continues to contribute to gender bias and discrimination in everyday life.

What Can Caregivers Do?

Keep in mind that although the media can influence your child, you, along with other caregivers, teachers, friends, and mentors in your child’s life, also have ample influence. Girls and women do not need to be passive consumers of cultural messages. They can be active in making choices about what cultural scripts to attend to and what to reject (Roberts, 2013). Some parents may wonder whether the solution is to prevent girls from watching television, wearing makeup, using the internet, or looking through fashion magazines. Not quite. Even if it was possible to avoid media exposure, the healthy solution is not to over-protect and shelter girls from the world. Instead, it starts with building a strong relationship with your child where communication and both emotional and physical safety is a priority. Helping your child think critically about what is being shown in the media enables her to formulate her own thoughts about what she is viewing. Have discussions with your child about messages in the media and how they may impact her and other girls. Cultivate strong values with your daughter and emphasize the importance of developing what’s “on the inside”. Have conversations with the entire family so that your daughter can feel supported by a system of people. Also crucial, is how boys are raised and what they are socialized to believe about girls. Colloquial slogans that boys use to insult each other (i.e. “you run like a girl”, “you hit like a girl”) indicate that there is something inherently degrading about being a girl. It is just as important to educate boys to think critically about the cultural messages they receive about sex and girls.   

Also helpful is for girls to be aware of and exposed to successful women whose professions or careers do not depend on their physical attractiveness. This may be especially important for girls of color who may be more vulnerable due to media’s representation of women of color and women of different socioeconomic statuses as stereotypically hyper-sexual or sexually promiscuous (Littlefield, 2008). It is also much less likely that girls of color can regularly see women in the media who look like them and who are also in successful positions outside of entertainment, fashion, and the beauty industry. It is okay and normal for your child to want to feel attractive, but explore with your daughter different conceptions and representations of beauty and help her recognize that different types of hair, skin color, and body types can be beautiful.

Research has shown that youth who have a strong sense of purpose and agency are better able to stand up to cultural or peer pressures. It’s important that your child feel that she is able to achieve desired goals and accomplish tasks that are appropriately challenging. It’s also crucial that girls have interests, hobbies, and accomplishments that allow them to use different aspects of themselves (i.e. cognitive ability, creative ability, athletic ability, etc.). Sports, art classes, music lessons, martial arts, and other extracurricular activities are all examples of activities that help children develop a sense of mastery. These activities counter the media message that our bodies are ornamental (i.e. something nice to look at); instead, our bodies are capable of doing many wonderful things.  As your child learns her own capabilities, she will find that her worth extends beyond her appearance or her ability to be perceived by others as attractive. Moreover, a strong sense of self-worth will help your child maintain an internal, rather than external, sense of identity, which will be crucial especially as she approaches adolescence (Lillevoll, Kroger, & Martinussen, 2013).

Challenging the objectification and sexualization of women is to assert that women are capable, intelligent, talented, and relevant contributors to all aspects of society and culture. Although this may not be the message that is relayed in the media or in the greater socio-political context, we can help build up young girls to believe this about themselves so that they can aspire to be both seen and heard.    

For More Information:

American Psychological Association (APA) Taskforce on Sexualization of Girls


Erchull, M. J., Liss, M., & Lichiello, S. (2013). Extending the negative consequences of media internalization and self-objectification to dissociation and self-harm. Sex Roles,69(11-12), 583–593.

Grabe, S., Ward, L. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies.Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 460–476.

Graff, K. A., Murnen, S. K., & Krause, A. K. (2013). Low-cut shirts and high-heeled shoes: Increased sexualization across time in magazine depictions of girls. Sex Roles,69(11-12), 571–582.

Lillevoll, K. R., Kroger, J., & Martinussen, M. (2013). Identity status and locus of control: A meta-analysis. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research,13(3), 253–265.

Littlefield, M. (2008). The media as a system of racialization: Exploring images of African American women and the new racism. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(5), 675-685.

Purcell, N. J., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2013). The sexualization of girls and gendered violence: Mapping the connections. In E. L. Zurbriggen & T.-A. Roberts (Eds.), The sexualization of girls and girlhood: Causes, consequences, and resistance. (pp. 149–165). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Roberts, T.-A. (2013). “She”s so pretty, she looks just like a Bratz doll!’: Theoretical foundations for understanding girls’ and women’s self-objectification. In E. L. Zurbriggen & T.-A. Roberts (Eds.), The sexualization of girls and girlhood: Causes, consequences, and resistance. (pp. 22–35). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

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