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“Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes”: A look at sexualization in teen magazines

by Kimberly Belmonte

Have you heard that there’s no more photoshopping in American Eagle’s Aerie ads?  I think it’s a step in the right direction and it reminds me of SPARK activist Julia Bluhm’s petition to Seventeen magazine that led the company to issue a new policy against photoshopping its images.  While it’s totally awesome that more companies are opting out of using “faked” Photoshop images (and who wants to only look at plastic-y doll-like images anyway?), there are still way too many sexualized and objectified portrayals of girls’ bodies in the media.[1][2]

I’m gonna be real for a moment. I haven’t read a teen magazine in a few years.  But I knew I was going to be writing a blog about teen media, and like all good students, I like to do my research.  So I marched over to the closest newsstand – in the rain, mind you –  and bought copies of Seventeen, Cosmo, US weekly and some M&Ms (brain food).  Back at my apartment I spread out the magazines and felt like I was back in high school, when I used to have a subscription to Seventeen.  I’d pore over each issue, checking out flirting tips (“Pretend to drown so the cute lifeguard will save me?!” Um, no thanks, I’m on the swim team) and laughing over the “traumaramas” section—those “I was trying to look cool but then wiped out in front of the whole school” embarrassing stories!  But this time when I had all these glossy pages spread out in front of me I was surprised that the girls staring back at me looked a little older and a lot more sexualized than I remembered. I wondered if the representations of these girls had really changed so much since I was a teenager.

Researchers Kaitlin Graff, Sarah Murnen and Anna Krause[3] also wanted to know what was going on with teen media.  And what do researchers do when they have a burning question about girls and the media?  They dig up magazines from the last 30 years to see if there has been a change over time in how girls are represented!  They scoped out Seventeen, which is targeted to young women ages 12 to 19, and Girls’ Life, which is meant for younger girls, ages 10 to 15.  These dedicated researchers analyzed over 1000 pictures of girls from Seventeen magazines between 1971 and 2011 and Girls’ Life magazines between 1994 and 2011 to count how often girls were represented in sexualized (e.g., tight clothing, shirts that show cleavage, midriff-baring shirts, high-heels) or childlike ways (e.g., childlike shoes, pigtails, ruffles, bows, childlike prints on clothes such as butterflies).

If you’ve looked at a teen mag lately, I think you can guess what they found – images of girls have gotten more sexualized over time. The number of sexualizing characteristics of girls in Seventeen tripled and the number of sexualizing characteristics in Girls’ Life multiplied by 15yikes! Most of these changes in sexualization were really recent—like in the 2000s, and a little in the 1990s.  They also found that, especially in Girls’ Life, the number of images with “childlike characteristics” have decreased over time.  Or in other words, these magazines show pictures of girls-as-women, not girls-as-children.

So what does this really mean?  Over time, they found that the images of girls were more sexualized and in Girl’s Life there was less “girl” –as in things that are childlike—and more images of sexualized women.  But what’s the big deal? Well, we know that at least 35% of teenage girls read magazines every day.[4]  That’s a lot of exposure to these types of images.  And this can be really bad for girls.  Here at SPARK, our mission is to “take sexy back,” but that doesn’t include bombarding girls with sexualized pictures.  Constantly seeing images of older, sexualized girls can lead to girls thinking they need to look like those grown-up images in the magazines.  The desire to fit into a narrow idealized version of femininity can lead girls to feeling ashamed of their bodies or becoming overly concerned with their appearance. We know that focusing too much on appearances (aka trying to “look sexy”) can get in the way of girls’ developing a healthy embodied sexuality that is rooted in feeling sexy. It’s just not good for girls to equate ‘being grown up’ with being sexualized.



[1]  Zurbriggen, E. L., Collins, R. L., Lamb, S.  Roberts, T., Tolman, D. L, Ward, L. M. & Blake, J. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. American Psychological Association, 1-66. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx

[2] Tolman, D. (2012). Female Adolescents, Sexual Empowerment and Desire: A Missing Discourse of Gender Inequity. Sex Roles, 66, 746-757.

[3] Graff,K., Murnen, S. & Krause, A. (2012) Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes: Increased Sexualization Across Time in Magazine Depictions of Girls. Sex Roles, 69,  571–582

[4] Rideout, V (2007). Parents, Children & Media: A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey. Retrieved from http://kff.org/other/poll-finding/parents-children-media-a-kaiser-family-foundation/

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One Response to ““Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes”: A look at sexualization in teen magazines”

  1. [...] our culture’s current beauty ideals, which are also reflected in sexualization of teen magazines. SPARK summit reported on a study of teen media from 1994 until now showing a significant increase in the use of older [...]

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