Negative Media Images of Girls and Teens

Low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders are the leading mental health problems facing girls, and they are linked to sexualized advertisement of girls and women. Tell that to the next person who says that the media doesn’t affect their lives.

Read One Girl’s Opinion Background

If you tried to count how much time you spend watching TV or going online, you would probably be embarrassed to say the answer. In fact, most 8-18 year olds spend about 10 hours a day–that’s more time spent on media than on any other activity! But do you really notice the messages the media tries to convey?

Media images have great influence on societal ideals–particularly when it comes to girls and women. Even though females are underrepresented in the media, when they appear, the focus is usually on their looks. For example, less than one-third of speaking roles in children movies are given to females and the majority of female characters are characterized by their physical beauty rather than their personality or intelligence.

The sexualization of girls and women, which is the depiction of females as merely valued by their sex appeal, is everywhere in our media and oftentimes these images are electronically altered to increase attractiveness. Here are just a few examples:

  • Females are more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as sexual objects (which means turning women into objects for sexual pleasure) during prime time commercials.
  • The trend over the last 25 years is to depict young adolescents in sexual poses (as seen in Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel ads).
  • Even children are sometimes depicted as sexual objects in advertisements, in which 85 percent are girls and usually with a “sexy” woman in matching clothes and positions.

Products for children also reinforce girls’ value on “sexiness,” such as Bratz dolls wearing bikinis and fishnets and thongs for seven-year-olds (yes you read that correctly). From a young age, boys and girls are told by parents and teachers that girls should be more focused on their looks and ultimately their sex appeal.

We simply cannot escape from these expectations to look pretty and sexy, and it starts really young. While young girls should be having fun and learning interesting things in school, 54 percent of girls are worried about their appearance, and 37 percent of girls are concerned about their weight. Many studies on teenage girls have shown that thinking of body image affects one’s mindset and academic performance. In one interesting study, teenage girls and boys were asked to try on either a swimsuit or sweater and then took a math test. While all boys performed about the same in either condition, girls in swimsuits performed significantly worse than girls in sweaters, indicating that preoccupation with body image affected math performance. Other studies show links between sexualized images in the media and lower self-esteem, negative or depressed mood, unhealthy eating habits, and diminished sexual health.

Sexualization of females in the media is not only a problem in the U.S. In countries such as Nigeria and South Africa, stereotypical depictions of women as sexual objects are so deep in men’s perception of women, they refuse to think of women as otherwise. The demand for women as sex objects in the media is what “readers” want. In Japan, not only is there an obsession with beauty and thinness in the media, but there’s also an emphasis on the Western ideal of appearance. So no matter where you are in the world, images in the media are constantly telling girls not to be who they really are.

Call to Action

Learn More

  • Watch these videos
    • Killing Us Softly: Jean Kilbourne has produced this series for 30 years and found that women’s sexualization within the media has only gotten “worse.”
    • Beauty Pressure: Dove’s message that is effective in showing the barrage of media messages directed toward girls but keep in mind that Dove is like all companies that do good things partly to get you to buy their products.
    • Powerful Swedish ad about Anorexia and Bulimia


Inform Others

  • Form a group to promote media literacy to analyze the effects that the media has on negative body images and perceptions of self. One idea is to create a media journal of how people–boys and girls, men and women–appear and how these depictions make people feel. Share your observations with each other and encourage everyday discussion on the issue.
  • Ask your school administration if you can put up posters or run ads during your morning announcement educating your peers about how negative media images affects everybody. Similarly, go to places where teens and kids would frequent–like the mall–and wear shirts that say catchy phrases about the media, like “The media hates the way everyone looks” or “Take out the ‘dia’ in ‘media.’”

Create Change

  • Channel your outrage over the way girls are disrespected in specific ads, music, movies, etc. and start a petition at Change.org or begin a boycott (let’s call it a girlcott) urging everyone not to buy certain products, music, etc.
  • Don’t like ads in certain magazines? Rip out the subscription card and use it to write a complaint and mail it back (no postage needed).
  • Don’t like messages that an artist is selling? Write to their PR people that you are upset with their content. If you’re upset with what you’re seeing or hearing, try to contact the people who are responsible and get as many people as possible to show that a TON of people feel this way.
  • Create a collage of ads with images that disgust you! Check out www.projectgirl.org for ideas and create your own media. Then share your artwork with your U.S. Congressperson and U.S. Senators, and even with directors, producers, magazine editors. Tell them what you really want to see in the media.

The media industry won’t change unless YOU, its audience, tell them that you aren’t buying into their values. You have the power to change media’s hurtful portrayal of women and girls, and finally the power to be your own person.