There are plenty problems in today’s media, but one of the most glaringly obvious and harmful is the oversexualization of men, children and women. There are several interlocking components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality.
According to the American Psychological Association, sexualization occurs when “individuals are regarded as sex objects and evaluated in terms of their physical characteristics and sexiness.” Particularly with children, sexuality is often inappropriately imposed upon a person. The mental, physical, and emotional toll that these media standards expose to us to are unacceptable.
One of the most disturbing aspects of oversexualization is that female children are shown as sexual objects to sell products. There is also an issue with female adults dressing as young children to look “sexy” or “appealing.” With these images exposed to both male and female children, it is no wonder that they are trying to grow up too fast. Parents may also contribute to sexualization. For example, parents may convey the message that maintaining an attractive physical appearance is the most important goal for girls. Some may even allow or encourage plastic surgery to help girls meet that goal.
Even clothing is beginning to become an unsafe territory - including thong underwear marketed for preschoolers and elementary school kids that feature printed slogans like “Eye Candy” or “Wink Wink.” Even toys and fashion dolls marketed at 6-year-old girls feature sexualized clothing, like fishnet stockings and extremely short skirts.
Some of the effects of sexualization on elementary-aged female children include 42 percent of 1st - 3rd grade girls wanting to be thinner. 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 165 pounds. The average Miss America winner is 5’7” and weighs 121 pounds. Of elementary school girls who read magazines, 69 percent say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47 percent say the pictures make them want to lose weight.
When will we learn that these effects can be deadly, and usually are? Between 5 and 20 percent of people who develop anorexia nervosa eventually die from it, many of those caused by pictures and ideals spread by the media.
In study after study, findings have indicated that women, more often than men, are portrayed in a sexual manner and are objectified. That is not to say that it is not a problem in all corners of the ring.
Many boys and men face eating disorders as a result of America’s obsession with perfection in areas such as appearance and achievement. Boys today are receiving similar pressures for the need to be physically perfect. Look at action figures; they are absurdly muscular, especially in the chest and shoulders. This impacts boys, not unlike the way Barbie has influenced girls for generations. Consider advertising, where the men depicted are the male equivalent of super models: lean and fit, or cut and buff.
Boys and men alike can compare themselves to these images, and find themselves lacking. This is why males are now dieting and working out to an extreme, becoming vulnerable to eating disorders. At puberty boys feel pressure to be strong physically, often before their bodies can actually support the ideal body image that is seen in the media.
Anorexia is now diagnosed in boys as young as eight, but the most common disorder for males is binge-eating disorder - a full 40 percent of those with binge-eating disorders are male.
Muscle Dysmorphia is a type of Body Dysmorphic Disorder and primarily take place in men. The desire for increased musculature is not uncommon, and it crosses age groups; 25 percent of normal weight males perceive themselves to be “underweight,” 90 percent of teen aged boys exercised with the goal of bulking up, and among college-aged men, 68 percent say they have too little muscle. Various studies suggest that risk of mortality for males with eating disorders is higher than it is for females (Raevuoni, 2014).
As an adolescent female soon to become an adult female consumer, I see a disproportionate sexualization of women over men, though both are issues. I look at the ads on my social media websites and I only see lips or bodies with products on them. In music videos, women are often scantily clad or not dressed at all.
Truly, the difference in how the bodies of men and women are portrayed is by the face-to-body proportions. For men, a "face-ism" bias exists, whereby men's heads and faces are shown in greater detail than they are for women. In other words, females are more seen for the bodies, while men are valued for the look in their eye or the way their smile might be lopsided.
Adult women may suffer by trying to conform to a younger and younger standard of ideal female beauty. Many resort to plastic surgery or other unhealthy means of looking “thinner” or “more beautiful.” Girls are more likely to develop anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than all other causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
More general societal effects may include an increase in sexism; fewer girls pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and there are increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
What can we do about this issue? You can turn off the television, not buy the magazines with the photoshopped girls on it, or refuse to buy into the society that is no good for you. All of these sound great in theory, but the best thing we can do right now is bring attention to the issue and talk about it. Talk to your friends and family about why oversexualization in the media is accepted, but normal-looking people are downgraded.