Increasingly girls are sexualised and objectified in the media with images and messages focusing on the importance of how they look over who they are as a person. They are expected to be thin, attractive, successful, happy and self-sufficient. Perfect, in fact. Increasing rates of mental health problems in young women, including eating disorders and self-harm, highlight the pressure they are experiencing.
On behalf of Parenting SA, Dr Justin Coulson, nationally recognised parenting speaker, author and researcher, discusses the messages we are giving girls and the impact on their wellbeing. He describes how girls are taught to please others and to seek acceptance, even when at times it harms them. He provides parents with tips on how to raise resilient girls who understand about respect and healthy relationships.
More information about girl resilience can be found at Parenting SA.
The Parenting SA website also has many other topics for parents of children aged 0 to 18 years.
Hi, I’m Dr Justin Coulson, parenting author, researcher and speaker. In this video: ‘how to teach girls about how to have respectful relationships’.
In the last decade there’s been an acknowledgement by government, by researchers and other groups that girls are struggling. Our society seems to be particularly unkind to females. Research reports, like one commissioned by the American Psychological Association, investigated the sexualisation of girls in the media. The Australian Psychological Society has highlighted the prevalence of objectification and sexualisation of girls. And several reports are indicating that we need to do more to protect our daughters.
TV and other media messages focus on female sexualised imagery and their bodies, rather than their brains or their personality or who they are. So, consequently, everywhere a young girl goes, she sees messages that make her feel that she’s not good enough unless she looks a certain way. Girls are now expected to be all things. They are supposed to be attractive, and thin, and good, and successful, and happy, and kind, and loving, and self-sufficient - perfect in other words. And it’s taking its toll. Our daughters are showing their distress with rising rates of mental health problems, binge drinking, eating disorders, bullying.
Our TV shows promote the sexiness of females because women’s bodies sell. Studies tell us that pornography consumption is at an all-time high, and girls are consistently the ones who are being degraded and used. And we know that teens are the highest consumers of pornography, and their beliefs and their behaviours are being shaped by what they see in that porn. Now, you add to this a culture where females are taught that they should try to please others. Research tells us that girls are saying ‘Yes’ to disrespectful treatment so that they can make other people happy, even when it hurts them. So, whether they are simply submissive and stepping back, or whether it means that they are agreeing to send sexy selfies or participate in sex acts that are going to hurt them so that they can please their boyfriend. Girls are craving love and acceptance and all too often they are seeking it in ways that lead to pain and humiliation, and even harm. So, in short, we tell girls all sorts of things but the message that seems to get through more than any other is that how they look is what matters most, how sexy they are is what matters most.
So, how can we raise resilient healthy girls who can overcome these unhealthy messages? Well, that comes down to a few things done consistently, daily, all the time, by parents and caregivers to help girls to learn resilience, respect, responsibility, and to be happy. First: We’ve got to be available to them, deeply, honestly, completely available. Let them know that if they ever want to talk, that we are there. I suggest that the best chats are had while walking, and if they ever want to go for ‘a walk’, that you’ll be right there. But even in the small things that don’t require ‘walks’, just stop, turn away from the screen or work or whatever you are doing and look at your daughter, listen, invest in a relationship, be available, make her feel important. Second: understand, really ‘get’ her feelings. So, when she’s emotional, don’t shut her down, don’t turn away from her, connect, get close, be there for her, make sure she knows she is important. You can coach her through her emotions; name the emotions she’s feeling so you can tame that emotion. You might say, ‘You are feeling upset’. You might say, ‘You are feeling overwhelmed’, ‘You are worried’, ‘You are nervous’, ‘You are anxious’… When children hear their parents talk about their emotions, they calm down faster and they feel safer, and they feel understood. Doing just these two things will help a girl feel respected and learn respect because you are modelling it. You’ve taught her by your actions, and it will build her resilience.
But we also need to be respectful to others, including ex-husbands or mothers-in-law, and those crazy drivers on the street, so that we can model respect in other relationships as well. We need to set limits with her. These might be limits about what media she consumes, how late she stays up at night, staying away from alcohol and other drugs, how to have healthy relationships with her romantic interests, and how to set limits with them. We need to talk to her about what she’s been exposed to in the media and online and at school with friends, and unpack all of those stereotypes about girls and boys. Question if what’s happening is OK, and safe and respectful, or appropriate. In other words, we set limits and boundaries together by talking about things together.
Now, I’ve got 6 daughters, so this whole topic matters to me a lot. Give girls chances to find their strengths and build on them. Help them to know that they are valuable as people, regardless of what society says about looks and sexiness. Help them to have healthy relationships with other men and women, and, if you can, keep dad helpfully and happily involved in their lives because, research tells us, he is a bigger influencer on their wellbeing and on their life choices than we had ever imagined.
But most of all love them, and make sure they know it every day.