Posted by: jessicat20 | February 27, 2020

Sexual Objectification of Young Girls: How does it affect their psychological well-being and ability to lead?

Ever since we watched Miss Representation in class, I can’t stop thinking about how the media’s sexual objectification of women’s bodies affects the psychological well-being of young girls. The image of that one girl crying over her sister’s self-harm tendencies that were enacted by the media’s portrayal of the ideal body shape for girls won’t leave my head. In combination with the rise in media platforms available to us, I believe it is important to consider the psychological effects of media’s sexual objectification of women’s bodies on young girls, but also their ability to lead.

To further my research on this topic, I decided to look and see what the American Psychological Association (APA) had to say on the matter. APA is an organization committed to the “advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives” (American Psychological Association, 2020). In 2007, the APA published a task report on the full spectrum of psychological effects the sexual objectification of girls bodies has on their mental health. This included cognitive, emotional, mental, physical, and sexual developmental consequences.

The most basic finding discussed in the APA report is that the self-objectification girls engage in disrupts their mental capacity to think . This was seen in one study where college students were asked to try on and evaluate a swimsuit or sweater, then complete a simple math test while waiting. Those wearing the swimsuit performed significantly worse than those wearing the sweater. Additionally, some of the emotional consequences of self-objectification included diminished confidence, body dysphoria (discomfort in one’s own body), shame, anxiety, and self-disgust. I found these cognitive and emotional consequences considerably important because of the effect diminished self-confidence and limited ability to think has on our ability to lead. As our readings from Tuesday stated, internalizing a leadership identity is critical to leadership development. A positive leadership identity is internalized through affirmation and recognition by others and yourself via social and relational processes. If a positive leadership identity fails to internalize, the person may stop seeking new leadership opportunities. Young girls may be at risk then for developing a negative leadership identity due to them engaging in a social process (self-objectification) that fails to positively affirm and recognize their talents and ambitions.

Other issues highlighted by the report included mental and physical health problems such as eating disorders, low-self esteem, depression, or a depressed mood; with the “thin ideal” body representation contributing the most to the development of eating disorders. This is extremely concerning considering the negative effects an eating disorder has on one’s health. Additionally, “frequent exposure to narrow ideals of attractiveness have been associated with unrealistic and/or negative expectations regarding sexuality.” Objectification of girl’s bodies impacts every part of their well-being and health.

Further research put forth by unicef shows that media’s objectification and sexualization of young women’s bodies increases the likelihood of violence against women due to the harmful stereotypes that are conveyed. I.e., girls are objects to be used and boys should be dominant and aggressive over girl’s bodies. How do you think this translates to the different leadership styles enacted between men and women?

The fact is simple, according to APA: The more women and girls expose themselves to mainstream media, the more they believe in the depiction of women as sexual objects. We will place appearance and physical attractiveness as one of our core values because of this. Girls who develop these values may also fail as leaders because they are instilling a value that is not personal to them. Again, citing Tuesday’s readings: Leaders are more effective when they pursue an “elevated purpose” that is in line with their personal values. If girls are being pressured to place appearance and physical attractiveness as their core values because of mainstream media instead of developing their own personal values, how can we expect them to be great leaders? We can’t, or at least not until they are able to shed these societal pressures and develop their own core values.

How do you think the media’s objectification of women’s bodies has impacted you and your ability to think of yourself as a leader? Are there any other concerns you feel were not addressed by this report in regards to the mental, physical, sexual, emotional, or cognitive health of young girls?

Click to access report-summary.pdf


  1. After watching Miss Representation, I remember feeling physically sick to my stomach. I attribute the disappointment and frustration that I felt to my feeling that what I had just watched was so accurate in its representation of society. I can completely relate to the negative affect that social media and the sexualization of women has on my body image. I spend hours a day scrolling through different social media platforms and I constantly find myself comparing my body, my life, my friends, and my experiences to the ones plastered all over the internet. Although I know that these images are an unrealistic portrayal of bodily expectations, that each picture is a representation of the best part of someone’s day or week, and that it is unfair to compare myself or my life to those that I see on the internet, it’s difficult and at times unavoidable. I find that this comparison absolutely has an effect on my overall confidence. On the days when I feel like my confidence is lowest, I am less willing to communicate with others and I prefer to be alone. This, as you mentioned, is directly related to the pursuit of leadership. When I don’t have confidence in myself, I have a negative leadership identity, therefore I am unlikely to feel brave or feel qualified enough to apply for or hold any leadership position. Therefore, I think the sexualization and objectification of young girls/women as well as the unrealistic representations that women are constantly exposed to on social media, play a large role in women’s confidence in general, which can also bleed into their confidence as leaders.

    • Something I also wanted to add was I do feel like certain companies are striving to break these unrealistic expectations of women, such as Aerie. Aerie has a campaign called #AerieREAL in which they have models of all shapes and sizes modeling their clothes and even swimsuits. I love this campaign and I wish more companies would take part in it, as I feel it is an important step in breaking down this sexualization and objectification of women which ultimately diminishes women’s leadership.

  2. I can definitely see how media representation influences my own perception of myself and others. However, while I do think that the media plays a big role in this, I believe that our society perpetuates these unrealistic beauty ideals in our everyday lives. For example, young girls being encouraged or discouraged by their family and friends to wear makeup, and how much makeup they should be wearing. Reasons behind this can cause young girls to think that makeup is very feminine (as a bad thing) and that wearing too much will bring too much attention to them. Other girls can be told that they have to wear makeup in order to be attractive to other people. We have to start breaking these false ideals through our daily lives first. I think that sometimes we don’t realize how much influence we can have on the media. Going off of the post above about Aerie, Victoria’s Secret faced a lot of backlash for only featuring the same body types in all of their fashion shows. They also did not want to have transgender models. After all of the backlash that they faced, a lot of their stores started closing, because at the end of the day we are the ones with the purchasing power and we get to make those choices.

  3. I am glad that you chose to further the conversation from Miss Representation here. Before I get into my thoughts on the movie, I wanted to comment on the article your quoted regarding the swimsuit/sweater and math test study. I learned about that study in my educational sociology class last year, and it was truly interesting to see how one’s body image can affect their cognitive and performance abilities. I can imagine that if I were to take that test, I would fall into that lowered-confidence category, as trying on swimsuits and taking math tests in particular creates a lot of self-doubt within myself. Although I didn’t realize it at first, it is not too difficult to see the correlation between one’s self-image and their perception of their abilities. When people want to perform their best, they tend to try to look and feel their best too. But when young girls and women are constantly inundated with materials and media objectifying their bodies and making them feel self-conscious, it can be difficult to pursue a variety of tasks, particularly those that promote leadership and success.

    Miss Representation sheds a light on a variety of issues such as these. Growing up, I remember noticing the pressures of social media and media representation, even from magazines. Even then there were attempts to combat things like lowered self-confidence, bullying, and self-hatred through girl empowerment conferences, girls in STEM conferences, and other initiatives. I have attended a few of these myself over the years, and I can completely understand how negatively these images can affect one’s ability to be a strong, confident leader (they still affect me today). However, the “ideal girl” or female body type in the U.S. is still perpetuated through the media, and this correlates directly to our ideas of leader identity and purpose, as you and the article mentioned. This negative leadership identity is not only created by media representation, but also by stereotypes and gender roles that have been communicated since before we were born. It is going to take a complete re-shift of what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be a female leader (eventually minus the “female” qualifier). Films such as Miss Representation do a good job of calling out where we need to do better, but it is going to take an entire generational shift (if not longer), and I believe that eventually it can be done.

  4. This has always been a topic that I have been fascinated with. As someone who wants to go into media production as a director or executive producer, this is something that I have always worried about.

    The media is a powerful tool. Every media artifact we consume, regardless of the medium, affects how we think and act. Media has the power to shape and change our socially constructed society.

    The way women are portrayed in the media definitely affects women in real life. Women in the media create unrealistic expectations women in real life become consumed with trying to reach. Women in the media have the perfect body, the perfect life, are always put together with perfect hair and make-up. This is just not attainable in real life.

    Women are not perfect. Men are not perfect. No one is perfect. There are no real representations in media that show women and the issues they face. There are no authentic depictions of women in the media. They are often portrayed as perfect, subordinate to men, and objects of the male gaze. There are few media narratives that revolve around women and their stories.

    The media represents harmful stereotypes and norms that are placed upon women that society then perpetuates. The media and society are intertwined, which is why it is important to be critical of what we see in the media.

    As for me personally, the depiction of women in the media has always made me feel like an outside. I don’t wear make-up, I am more assertive than most women, and I am the stereotypical tomboy. Seeing how women in media are typically portrayed always made me self-conscious and like I was being a woman wrong. Although I never wanted to be like the girls in the media, it definitely made me think like I wasn’t good enough. And I think that thought of not being good enough made me self-conscious in my leadership. I thought I had to be this perfect woman that I saw in the media so I always thought I wasn’t good enough to be a leader.

  5. How do you think the media’s objectification of women’s bodies has impacted you and your ability to think of yourself as a leader?

    The media’s objectification of women’s bodies has definitely impacted me greatly. As someone who wants to enter the performance field, it is extremely important for me to maintain a certain appearance and fitness, generally in accordance with the trends set by the media. Even though my desired profession is for the stage and not the screen, casting directors, agents, and even my own professors expect and require me to maintain a certain look. Every semester at my vocal juries (voice final where I sing for my professors and they evaluate my singing ability), there is a section on my evaluation for “appearance” ranging from 1-10 on how I present myself from my clothing to my makeup and hair. At my Sophomore checkpoint last year (midway point in the major where they decide if you should continue with the major or not), they discussed my choice of outfit and hair style right in front of me. There were three male professors and one female professor. One of the male professors (who has straight hair for reference) told me my hair (naturally very curly) looked limp. It is a moment that unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Even from my own parents, there is a pressure for me to uphold that media projected standard of beauty since I will be entering a similar field. They sometimes go so far as to say I won’t get cast if I don’t reach the standard. Obviously, this is not a healthy or confidence-boosting trend. It is depressing to think that I maybe can’t reach my goals by showing my natural self, that I have to diffuse my hair to make it big and fluffy and dramatic instead of having the soft ringlets I love, that if I’m not flexible enough or physically fit enough (whatever that means) I won’t get cast, that I’m not pretty enough naturally to reach my goal. Of course, this also translates into me being a leader, as I tend to maintain the same standards for appearance whether on or off the stage, and thus I believe that if I don’t reach the standard no one will see me as the right person to lead and thus as a leader.

  6. The media is the worst when it comes to depicting women properly. It is mostly for profit though. For example, when Hardee’s and Doritos use half naked women eating their products to boost sales. As i child i did watch movies that were rated R and played video games that were M rated (mature games were for ages 17+) but regardless, my mom made sure to tell me that these things were not real and women are not actually like that and to treat them with respect and not to do things i saw in video games in movies. Sadly, some children are not supervised like i was and the internet, video games, movies, and other media basically raises them and once that cements in their mind it is difficult to tell or teach them otherwise. Another example, Fortnite is the biggest video game that is mainly popular amongst middle school aged children. There was a feature in the game where when the female characters ran and were performing actions in battle their breasts would inappropriately move. This was eventually removed from the game and it received a lot of backlash because it shouldn’t have been in the game in the first place. That age group is just beginning sex education and seeing things like that does not help at all. In terms of leadership, this adds to women not being taken seriously. With this example specifically, over this past summer most of the kids i coached during camp played fortnite (most of them boys) and other things they definitely aren’t supposed to be watching or playing. During our lunch time or other free times i’d overhear the conversations they had or witness them being mean to the girls in camp and these were mainly based off “what they’ve seen on tv”. Since i can’t speak on personal experience of being objectified as a woman, I will say i have bought into some of the stereotypes that the media has portrayed about men such as “men don’t cry”. It is seen as weak if a man cries. During a good chunk of my life i’ve tried not to cry and be a “real man” but recently i’ve been getting emotional because it is my last year playing basketball and i cried on senior night and i always have a tear or two seeing my family in the stands watching what could be my last game.

  7. Thinking about the psychological impact that sexual objectification has on young women, particularly where you brought up the study with the bathing suit vs sweater differentiation, makes me wonder about the impact of school dress codes on young women and their performance. Of course the idea of penalizing girls and taking them out of the classroom to address their clothing is problematic, but even when female students are present in the classroom and wearing “appropriate” clothing, its seemingly still a topic of concern. Young women are made to be conscious of what they are wearing at a very young age, and while I understand functionally why dress codes are in place, the not-so-subtle way female students are told to not distract their male counterparts sends a very clear message to women that their education comes second in priority. How does this translate to actual performance? Does the impact increase, decrease, or remain the same as students age?

  8. The documentary, Miss Representation, was honestly one of my most favorite documentaries I have ever seen. To be completely honest, body image is really nothing I have ever struggled with, nor have my closest friends from home, so it is something I never used to even consider being insecure about until I came to college. I do, however, find the idea of body image to actually be incredibly fascinating. I love reading studies about its effects, so I really love the study you referenced about the bathing suit and the sweater.

    I remember when I was younger I used to watch videos and read studies about the effects of clothing items that are deemed ‘one size fits all’ and how it can impact self-image. Without fail, every piece that was tried on by the woman did not fit every single one of them perfectly, and it often resulted in some heartbreaking reactions. The clothing items were typically made of some sort of stretchy material that could be small enough to fit a petite woman, but stretchy enough to fit someone with more curves. However, seeing as it is impossible to manufacture something that will fit everyone the exact way it is supposed to, the normal results were that the ‘average’ woman would fit into it perfectly, the more petite women would have areas that were too large and baggy, and the more curvy woman wouldn’t even be able to get it on. It was sad to see the women’s reactions and how it made them feel to not fit in something that was intended for everyone. It often made them feel dehumanized, as if their perfectly beautiful body was not acknowledged by society as even existing. One of the worst ones I remember seeing was a bathing suit that supposedly was one size fits all, which I’m sure you can imagine how the women reacted to that.

    It really is crazy to me to think how demeaning the media can be toward women and their bodies, and it makes me sad to think how many women struggle with body image and self-esteem because of it. I consider myself fortunate to have never had major issues, however I do find myself with insecurities and unreal expectations for myself. I often find myself thinking it would be better if I were thinner, or that I would be more accepted if I was as skinny as possible, a very unhealthy mindset to have. I am more accepting of my body, but I can’t even imagine going through some of the struggles other women experience with their bodies.

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