By Isabelle Orozco (APA Women’s Programs Office)
Every year many children and adults creatively plan out their costumes for the one night where spooky wins. And even though for the most part the holiday may seem harmless it can have scarier consequences for our girls. With the acceptance of sexualized women’s costumes, the line for what’s appropriate to wear at different ages is increasingly blurred. Each Halloween, as girls get older, they are bombarded with costumes that are progressively more sexualized and socially acceptable. The question is, should this be a concern?
A landmark American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force report found three contributions to the sexualization of girls:
- cultural contributions (this includes all forms of media, advertising, social media, music, and the internet),
- interpersonal contributions (guardians, teachers, and peers), and
- intrapsychic contributions (self-sexualization).
All three components play a damaging part in the growth of girls, but cultural contributions can weigh heavier during Halloween time. There has been a rapid surge and accessibility of social media – as of 2018, “70 percent of teens use social media more than once a day” – an unprecedented spike compared to 34 percent in 2012.
With the increased appearance of influencers and “healthy” lifestyle coaches, social media propagates a “truth” that is often manipulated. And even as a full-fledged millennial with an eye for details, I often find it difficult to differentiate between untouched, non-Photoshopped pictures and those that are. These aesthetically crafted images often depict young girls as sexual objects or as counterparts to adult versions. And even though children and teens may insist social media is not detrimental, continuous exposure to sexualized images of girls has its effects.
How does this affect our girls?
“In a recent content analysis of Halloween costumes, Nelson (2000) found that there was a greater variation in the types of costumes marketed to boys than in those marketed to girls and that girls’ costumes nearly always emphasized physical attractiveness (e.g., beauty queens and princesses). Among the few female villain costumes, sexual eroticism was emphasized” (APA, 2007).
As mentioned in the report, sexualization has negative effects on cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.
Constant attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities. Constant sexualization and objectification can lead girls to feel shame, anxiety, and disgust toward their own bodies.
What can you do?
Although it may seem daunting as a parent to take on sexualization on social media and the Internet, there are many useful approaches you can use to protect girls from the influence of sexualization. According to the 2017 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), school and family connectedness are a major protective factor for children and teenagers.
- One essential approach is media literacy; you can teach children to critically view media and question who is sending them those sexualized messages and why.
- Participation in sports and physical activity can often be dismissed and ignored, but it may be one of girls’ best means of resisting objectification and sexualization. Encourage girls to be more active – to use their bodies to develop a self-concept founded on what they can do rather than on how they look.
- Lastly, monitoring your children’s social media activity, communicating how to interpret sexualizing cultural messages, and family engagement in schools are effective and go hand-in-hand with school connectedness.
For more tips and info, read our comprehensive “What Parents Can Do” toolkit.
American Psychological Association. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf
Isabelle Orozco is the Women’s Programs Assistant and graduated ago from Penn State University with a bachelor’s degree in neuropsychology and French.