Addressing the Sexualization of Girls through Comprehensive Programs, Advocacy, and Systemic Change: Implications for Professional School Counselors

Article excerpt

While today's girls are learning that they can achieve at the highest educational and professional levels, they also receive strong cultural messages that portray girls and women according to limiting sexual stereotypes. The trend toward the sexualization of girls is increasing in contemporary culture and can negatively impact girls' academic, career, and personal development. In this article, we describe the impact of these trends on girls' development and provide interventions for use in comprehensive school counseling programs.

Girls in early adolescence are earnestly searching for guides to help them answer the question, "Who am I?" As they look to popular culture for answers, today's girls encounter contradictory gender role expectations that send mixed messages about girls and women (LeCroy, 2004). On the one hand, girls are taught to be strong and competitive, to exemplify "girl power," and to achieve at exceptional educational and professional levels. On the other hand, contemporary adolescents are bombarded with cultural messages that portray girls and women according to limiting sexual stereotypes (Murnen, Smolak, Mills, & Good, 2003). Further, they are socialized to believe that their power and worth are primarily based upon their sexual appeal. According to the American Psychological Association's Report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls released in 2007, this trend toward the sexualization of girlhood is increasing in contemporary popular culture and can be limiting to girls' academic achievement, career aspirations, and psychological well-being (APA, 2007b).

It is important for professional school counselors to be aware of this trend for several reasons. First, according to the ASCA National Model® (American School Counselor Association, 2005), one role of the school counselor is to work toward removing institutional and global barriers that impede student learning and to promote the academic achievement of all students. Because APA's (2007b) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls found that the sexualization of girls may inhibit academic achievement, and thereby limit school success and career opportunities, it is a topic worthy of consideration by school counselors.

Second, there is a clear ethical imperative for school counselors to address this issue. Both ASCA's (2004) Ethical Standards for School Counselors and the ASCA National Model (2005) charge professional school counselors with promoting social equity through advocacy and leadership as social change agents. Having a social justice perspective and a philosophy that all students are capable, valuable members of society is essential to the school counselor's role as a change advocate (ASCA, 2005). Further, the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics asserts that counselors are obligated to advocate for systemic change on behalf of clients, whenever current environmental barriers exist that inhibit client growth and development (ACA, 2005, A.6.a). In addition, current best-practice guidelines for working with girls assert that counselors should understand the impact of gender on individual development as well as the influences of contemporary gendered social forces that operate in students' lives (APA, 2007a). As suggested by the guidelines, these social forces include the effects of media in popular culture; the current portrayal of women as thin, young, and sexualized; and the cultural preoccupation with weight, shape, and appearance as determinants of self-worth (APA).

Because of their professional orientation and skills, school counselors are uniquely suited to play a pivotal role in creating effective change in this area. To this end, the purpose of this article is to (a) describe the sexualization of girls and the process through which girls internalize limiting cultural messages during the adolescent period; (b) delineate the consequences of this internalization process on students' academic, career, and personal development; and (c) outline specific, concrete interventions that professional school counselors can use within the context of comprehensive programs. …