“As a high school teacher, I see 14-year-old girls dressing in a way that makes
me shake my head. Where do they get that?” asks Dennis Brown, an educator and
parent in Huntley, Ill., outside Chicago.
Recently, he says his own 5-year-old daughter proclaimed, “Daddy, I look fat.”
“And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, here we go,”‘ he says. “Now I have to start deconstructing that mind-set.”
It’s a big topic of discussion among researchers. A 2007 report from the American Psychological Association compiled the findings of myriad studies, showing that the sexualization of young women and girls, in particular, can hurt them in many ways. Problems can include anything from low self-esteem and eating disorders to depression and anxiety.
Simon, the California therapist, has seen those symptoms in several of his young female patients.
While boys tend to seek out porn for their own sexual pleasure, he sees a sexual disconnect with girls who exhibit provocative behavior they’re not ready for — from undressing online to performing oral sex on boys.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with their sexual pleasure,” says Simon. “It has to do with pleasing somebody else — the grasping for attention.
“As a parent, it makes me want to cry.”
And while they tell him they feel empowered, too often, he says they end up getting pegged as “sluts.”
Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, has noted that dynamic in her research. She’s working on a book about “players,” men who juggle more than one sex partner and earn a title of esteem for behavior that much of society still frowns upon for women.
“If you ‘act like a man,’ in that sense, you’re trying to grab hold of that same kind of power, that same kind of lifestyle — and claim male privilege,” Albright says.
“The problem is, you’re still female and it’s still a man’s world.”
Anna Stanley, a 25-year-old in Madison, Wis., knows all about that double standard. She also wonders if she and her peers place too much importance on the power of sexiness.
“It seems like it stems out of the ‘Girl Power’ thing of the ’90s gone awry — men objectify us, so let’s objectify ourselves and get something out of it. It’s not really progress,” she says. “But it’s something I have mixed feelings about — because sometimes I do it, too.
“Sometimes you do dress up to get noticed and attention, and you do feel more confident when you do that.”
She wishes there was more focus on helping women develop a healthy sense of their own sexuality.
Missy Suicide — founder of the “Suicide Girls” pinup Web site — couldn’t agree more.
“I think that women shouldn’t be afraid of their sexuality. It’s a part of who we are. You shouldn’t be embarrassed and ashamed of your body and yourself,” says the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who lives in Los Angeles. But, she says, it shouldn’t be the sole focus.
She and the women on her site are known for challenging the stereotypes of beauty, with their tattoos and piercings and varying body types.
“I get messages from girls all the time saying they never felt beautiful before because they never saw girls like themselves in magazines or on TV. Then they saw a girl like them on ‘Suicide Girls,”‘ she says of the site, an online community that attracts a worldwide audience of both admirers and women who want to become nude pinups.
Victoria Sinclair, the lead anchor on “Naked News,” also sees herself as a role model. She left a job in the corporate world to join the show as lead anchor in 1999 — and never looked back.
]”Sometimes, there are moments when I think, ‘Oh my goodness what am I doing?'” says Sinclair, who recently turned 40. “But I’m really OK with it.”
She says it works for her because she has control over what she des on the show and has been allowed to age gracefully, without plastic surgery.
Still, many skeptics remain.
“To be sure, it can make you feel powerful to know that you are arousing strong feelings in other people, that you have their attention and admiration,” says Eileen Zurbriggen, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who helped compile the APA report.
“This is the same sense of power experienced by charismatic rock stars and politicians. But politicians also wield other kinds of power. They can make actual changes to the legal, economic and geopolitical landscapes — changes that have far-ranging impacts.
“Women,” she says, “might be better off developing other sources of power.”