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.
Follow Darryl Roberts on Twitter: www.twitter.com/darryl_roberts
Emma Watson formally invited men to join the fight for gender equality in a moving speech on Sept. 21, launching the HeForShe campaign. In her role as the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, she spoke about how impossible it is to achieve equality of the sexes if only one sex participates in the fight:
I was appointed six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women's rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.
For the record, feminism by definition is: "The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.
... Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.
We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.
... I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.
This, by the way, is the stellar example of acting on feminism (and not just being cool with the 'f' word) that Hollywood so desperately needs. Are you listening, men / everyone who could be doing more for gender equality? Emma Watson is waiting for your RSVP.