“Premature Sexualisation” Pushing Young Girls into Depression and Self-Harm: New Study

July 14, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com) – "When I was 11, I read a teenage magazine for the first time and that is when it kind of clicked, ‘I should be like this’," says one young girl surveyed in a study by Girlguiding UK and the Mental Health Foundation, that has revealed three leading potential "triggers" for serious mental health problems in girls: premature sexualisation, commercialisation and alcohol misuse.

More generally, the report reveals a loss of childhood innocence and says girls today experience high levels of "stress, anxiety and unhappiness". The study found that premature sexualisation and pressure to grow up too quickly are two "key influences" in the anxiety felt by girls.

"Sexual advances from boys, pressure to wear clothes that make them look too old and magazines and websites directly targeting younger girls to lose weight or consider plastic surgery were identified as taking a particular toll," the report says.

Dr. Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation which worked on the study, said, "Girls and young women are being forced to grow up at an unnatural pace in a society that we, as adults, have created and it’s damaging their emotional well-being."

"We are forcing our young people to grow up too quickly and not giving them the spaces and experiences they require to be safe and confident. We are creating a generation under stress."

The study, commissioned by the Girl Guides and the Mental Health Foundation, questioned 350 Girl Guides aged 10 to 14 and includes detailed interviews with teenaged girls from across the country. Two-thirds of the girls surveyed online feel "anger and sadness" at least some of the time and half find those feelings difficult to manage. A quarter are "often worried," while half find their anxiety hard to handle.

Many of the girls said they have friends or family members who have suffered mental health problems. Two-fifths know someone who has self-harmed, a third had a friend who suffered from an eating disorder and almost two in five know someone who had experienced panic attacks. Many feel strongly that self-harm could be within the spectrum of "typical teenage behaviour" and that it was not necessarily symptomatic of a mental health problem. A quarter said they know someone who has taken illegal drugs, while two-fifths have experienced someone drinking too much alcohol.

The girls see supportive families and friendship groups as the "most important factor" in dealing with these problems.

This latest study supports previous research conducted by the Guides that found girls are especially under pressure to look like the celebrities they see in magazines and on television. Two-thirds of the girls admitted they felt worse about themselves when they saw pictures of models in magazines and on TV.

An earlier survey of members of Girlguiding UK found that the role models most often cited by girls between 10 and 25 included the skeletally thin Victoria Beckham, a former Spice Girls singer and wife of football superstar David Beckham, English singer Leona Lewis, Kate Moss, the "supermodel" who pioneered the "heroin chic waif look" in the 1990s, and the singer Amy Winehouse, a crack cocaine addict whose problems with alcohol and self-destructive behaviour have become regular tabloid news since 2007.

44 percent admitted they could name more WAGS (wives and girlfriends of professional footballers) than female politicians. Forty-two percent of the girls surveyed named celebrities as the greatest influence on girls and young women.

"Young girls today face a new generation of pressures that leave too many suffering stress, anxiety and unhappiness," said Chief Guide Liz Burnley. "All of us who care about young women have a part to play in helping them find a way through these conflicting demands to build the confidence they need to be themselves."

Last year, a report by the American Psychological Association (APA) recommended the removal of all ‘sexualized’ images of women in media, calling them harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development.

Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the APA task force that ran the study said, "The consequences of the sexualisation of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development."

"We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualisation has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development."

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