Girls who take part in media literacy programs are less likely to internalize attitudes from media that lead them to see themselves as objects.
When one-third of a report's length is taken up with the citations used in producing it, you know it's been well researched.
That's the case with the American Psychological Association's Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls from 2010. Even though the report is close to four years old, it's safe to say the situation it documents hasn't reversed itself.
Television is one of many culprits the report cites. Others include movies, magazines, clothing and the Internet.
But just examining TV's role in this situation would provide enough fodder for a report of its own.
"Anyone – girls, boys, men, women – can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them," the report said.
"On prime-time television, girls can watch fashion shows in which models made to resemble little girls wear sexy lingerie," the report said, referring to a Victoria's Secret Fashion Show special that aired on CBS.
"With the plethora of media options available today, it is possible to access the latest news or the most popular song almost anywhere and anytime, yet it is also possible to be inundated by unwanted messages and material. Media content responds to demand and is a reflection of culture, but it also contributes to it," the report noted.
"Throughout U.S. culture, and particularly in mainstream media, women and girls are depicted in a sexualizing manner. These representations can be seen in virtually every medium, including prime-time television programs, television commercials, music videos and magazines."
Young viewers of television "encounter a world that is disproportionately male, especially in youth-oriented programs, and one in which female characters are significantly more likely than male characters to be attractive and provocatively dressed," the report said.
"Sexual comments and remarks are pervasive on television, and research has shown that they disproportionately sexually objectify women," it said, citing a 1995 study that found that 11.5 per cent of the verbal sexual messages "involved sexually objectifying comments, nearly all of which were about women."
Nor is this situation strictly limited to programming.
The task force report cited a 1997 TV ad study where "women more often than men were shown in a state of undress, exhibited more 'sexiness,' and were depicted as sexual objects" more than twice as often as men.
"Beer commercials have emerged as a particularly rich source of images that sexualize young women," it said.
"Of the 72 beer and non-beer ads randomly selected from prime-time sports and entertainment programming, 75 per cent of the beer ads and 50 per cent of the non-beer ads were labeled as 'sexist,' featuring women in very limited and objectifying roles."
Why all this concern? According to the report, "Girls learn about women's expected roles in the world and strive to enact these expectations, because doing so brings specific rewards and because being consistent with expectations is itself rewarding.
"In addition, violations of the boundaries of these roles or ideologies can be met with punishment, denigration, and even violence."
In that context, it added, "sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one's own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust."
Is the situation hopeless? Difficult, yes, but the report suggested several ways to counter the influence of sexualization.
One counter was media literacy.
"There is an urgent need for girls to view media critically. Although components vary from program to program, media literacy training in general provides media consumers with analytical tools that promote autonomy and critical understanding of media," the report said.
As an example, it pointed to a study of college women that found "three media literacy programs were effective in increasing women's skepticism about the realism of images that promote a thin ideal of beauty, compared with a control group receiving no intervention."
The report highlighted another study showing that "high school girls who participated in a media literacy program had less internalization of the thin ideal and more questions about the realism of images than girls in a control group."
Faith and family are other effective counters, the report said.
"Parents and other family members can help girls interpret sexualizing cultural messages in ways that mitigate or prevent harm," it explained.
"Because sexualization is often so pervasive as to seem normal and thus not even discernible to many girls, parents can make sexualization visible by discussing media and other cultural messages with girls."
Regarding the influence of faith on the situation, the report said that "religious practices and social or political activism are also helpful strategies."
"Organized religious and other ethical instruction often begins within the family and can offer girls important practical and psychological alternatives to the values conveyed by popular culture," it continued.
"When parents, through their religious or ethical practices, communicate the message that other characteristics are more important than sexuality, they help to counteract the strong and prevalent message that it is only girls' sexuality that makes them interesting, desirable, or valuable."
It added: "By insisting that girls be allowed to remain girls and not be pushed into a precocious sexuality, they provide a haven where girls can develop at their own pace."
The reason the American Psychological Association brought renewed attention to the 2010 report this October was its authors' fears over the increasingly sexual nature of girls' Halloween costumes.
(Mark Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.)