Calling All Fathers: Save the Girls

Kathleen Parker

2/28/2007 12:01:00 AM - Kathleen Parker

When it comes to figuring out what's gone wrong with our culture, we can usually rely on the American Psychological Association (APA) to catch on last.

Thus, it came to pass a few days ago that the APA released its findings that American girls are sexualized. And that's bad.

If you missed the headlines, it may be because of stiff competition from the breaking news that Anna Nicole is still dead and Britney is still disturbed.

Irony doesn't get to be ironic when it's that conspicuous.

The APA report found that girls are sexualized in nearly every medium and product -- from ads and video games to clothing, cosmetics and even dolls. Anyone who has walked down an American street the past few years has seen the effects -- little girls dressed as tartlets and teens decked in bling, while mom takes pole-dancing lessons at the gym.

We shouldn't need a scientific study to tell us that sexualizing children is damaging, but apparently common sense isn't what it used to be. We can now assert with confidence that most of the primarily girl pathologies -- eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression -- can be linked to an oversexualization that encourages girls to obsess about body image and objectify themselves.

That said, some of the report's findings are ... odd. One claim, for instance, is that girls who worry about body image perform poorly in math. The research that led to this conclusion involved putting college students in dressing rooms to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited alone for 10 minutes wearing their assigned garment, they were given a math quiz.

Apparently, female near-nakedness and cognitive thought are incompatible. But you knew that. The young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse than those in sweaters. There were no differences among the young men.

Researchers concluded from this that ``thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity.''

I'm not a psychologist, but isn't it possible that wearing a bathing suit isn't conducive to math testing, rather than that bathing suits made them so unhappy with their bodies that they couldn't do math? Paging Larry Summers.

If nothing else, I think we can conclude that girls shouldn't wear bathing suits to take the SAT.

While finding ways to desexualize girls would be a welcome development to sane adults, one wonders why there is no comparable concern about the effects of our sexualized culture on boys.

Although boys are not sexualized to the same degree -- a study of magazine ads over a 40-year period found that 85 percent of sexualized children pictured were girls -- surely the incessant barrage of sexual imagery and messages can't be healthy for boys either.

The APA report makes brief mention that boys, men and even women can be negatively affected by the sexualization of girls. APA researchers confirmed what porn studies also have found -- that boys and young men constantly exposed to idealized versions of females may have difficulty finding an ``acceptable'' partner and enjoying intimacy with a real person.

Nevertheless, there seems to be an unspoken sense that males are getting what they want with 24/7 sex messaging. Implicit is the notion that males are incapable of nobility, or that they might suffer from an objectifying culture that commodifies their human yearning for intimacy.

Also missing from the report is the single factor that seems most predictive of girls' self-objectification -- the absence of a father in their lives. Although the task force urges ``parents'' to help their daughters interpret sexualizing cultural messages, there's little mention of the unique role fathers play in protecting their girls from a voracious, sexualized culture.

Fathers, after all, are the ones who tell their little girls that they're perfect just the way they are; that they don't need to be one bit thinner; and that under no circumstances are they going out of the house dressed that way.

It can't be coincidence that girls' self-objectification -- looking for male attention in all the wrong ways -- has risen as father presence has declined. At last tally, 30 percent of fathers weren't sleeping in the same house as their biological children.

The APA is calling for more education, more research, forums, girls groups and Web zines to tackle girl sexualization. But my instinctual guess is that getting fathers back into their daughters' lives and back on the job would do more than all the forums and task forces combined.

Ultimately, it's a daddy thing.