Sex Should Not Sell

The progression of the sexualization of teenage girls in the media

Tara Wirtschoreck and Gaby Yap

During her time on the silver screen, Marilyn Monroe was never allowed to be anything more than a sex symbol, according to a study on her life by the University of Oregon. In 1946, she signed her first contract with 20th Century-Fox and from there starred in numerous movies, type casted as the “sexy blonde” in almost every one of the films she was in.

This hypersexualization of young women is still common today. An example from actress Millie Bobby Brown’s life is her being named one of the “sexiest personalities on television” by W in 2017, when she was just 13 years old. Being in the public eye from a young age has put her, and other stars in similar situations of being oversexualized, Brown explained.

“There are moments I get frustrated from the inaccuracy, inappropriate comments, sexualization, and unnecessary insults that ultimately have resulted in pain and insecurity for me,” Brown said in an Instagram post made on her 16th birthday. “But not ever will I be defeated. I’ll continue doing what I love and spreading the message in order to make change.”

The rise of social media accentuates the sexualization of teenage girls specifically, according to Pamela Torres, psychiatric nurse at Garfield Park Hospital. It is even hypothesized by Dr. Stephanie Ng, a resident in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University, in her article for The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2017, that social media between teenagers has amplified body shaming more so than traditional media.

“Society puts a lot of weight on [teens’] appearances,” Torres said. “Teenage girls depend on other people’s opinion of them. The advent of social media made it worse because they measure their popularity by the amount of likes they [receive]. The rise of influencers did not help since girls tended to follow and imitate them.”

Torres, because of sexualization, has seen insecurity, low self-esteem, and attention seeking behaviors in teenage girls. These behaviors can include promiscuity, which can lead to discord between family members. Torres has seen firsthand the adverse effects this issue can have on teenage girls.

“Most of the teenage girls that were admitted in our hospital had had some form of sexual trauma or family discord because of [the societal] beliefs [that alienated] the girls [because of] the way they dressed or acted,” Torres said.

Junior Yemisi Olujare has seen the problematic effect on social media, mostly in younger girls and their need to fit into beauty standards set for adults.

“[Social media] makes girls grow up faster; young girls are being exposed to beauty standards on social media, and they’re trying to meet these standards at younger and younger ages,” Olujare said.

An overt sexualization of minors in online comments also occurs on these platforms, especially on TikTok, junior Fiona Clements said. Clements has noticed people will often comment on the bodies of young girls or say sexual things about girls’ videos.

“[When I’m] scrolling through the comments of a girl’s post who’s under 18, and it seems like a normal post for me, there are [people] saying things that shouldn’t be said,” Clements said.

Much of this objectification and sexualization of teenage girls can be seen in the fashion industry because youth and beauty are used to sell things like makeup and clothes, Olujare said. This can lead to the objectification of young women because so many models are forced out of the industry at a young age.

“In media and fashion, women have a short life span,” Olujare said. “Models are supposed to be skinny and young, between the ages of 14 or 15, up until their early 30s. Women are consistently objectified in fashion and media.”

Freshman Lilly Kalik’s* personal story underlines another issue of female objectification in relationships. Kalik was with her then boyfriend and his friends when inappropriate comments were made about her and her relationship in front of her. She was only 14, and the comments explicitly asked her about sexual experiences she barely understood. Kalik was fully aware that this was a regular occurrence within their group, with some of these comments even coming from her boyfriend.

“[Sexual comments were] the first thing that came to their mind when they [asked] about my relationship,” Kalik said. “They [said] nasty, disgusting comments that just make me sick to my stomach. It ruined my relationship.”

Parallel to Kalik’s experience, senior Matthew Garvey believes many comments made about women behind closed doors are much more concerning than commentary made in co-ed spaces.

“When men are amongst themselves, and not in a place with women, the way men talk about women is completely different than when they’re talking [directly] to women,” Garvey said.

A part of this sexualization can come from the amount of skin one chooses to show in their outfits, which is problematic as skin and different body parts should not be innately sexualized, junior Meghan Noe said. At South, Noe believes, the lenient dress code allows one to explore what they want to wear at school, even if that involves showing a little more skin.

“Presentability and what’s considered appropriate is different to a lot of people,” Noe said. “Obviously, there are certain limits, but most people who push different boundaries of what’s ‘traditional’ or ‘socially acceptable’ are usually doing it for a positive reason.”

The pressure to be seen as attractive online can lead to adverse effects on teenage girls such as lower self-esteem, eating disorders, or depression, Ng explained. On social media, girls are rewarded for sexuality with likes and views, according to Ng’s article in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

“While concern about sexualization of adolescent girls is not new, social media has amplified age-old pressures for teenage girls to conform to certain sexualized narratives, as well as opened up new and uncharted ways for them to do so,” Ng said.

At South, mental health professionals work to help girls work through the issues that come with sexualization. Social Worker Pantra Hoeft, Psychologist Jennifer Meek, and Guidance Counselor Jennifer Bentley run a group called Images, that focuses on the media and the impact it has had on women.

“We are seeing the newer social media (Instagram, TikTok, filters) impact females on a more personalized level,” Meek said.

The students in the group are able to voice and externalize their feelings in a safe space, Meek said. These feelings can often come from the pressures of social media, mass media, and overall societal expectations, Meek explained.

During Images meetings, Meek, Hoeft, and Bentley focus on creating a supportive space for girls and women who have been impacted by sexualization in the media.

“[We focus on] making connections and tapping into [girls’] self-esteem, [and] helping students focus on what they do they like about their bodies.” Meek said, “[We try] not just focusing on physical beauty, but what it means to be a beautiful person.”

*Names have been changed