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Building Self-Esteem: How we can change the way women and girls are portrayed in the media?

The over-sexualization of women in the media does more than damage young girls’ self-esteem, it also limits their future career potential.

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Images of sexualized women are such a common sight that you may not bat an eyelid at them. You don’t have to look far to see semi-clad, suggestively posed women and girls all over billboards, magazines and TV screens. To the extent, perhaps, that it’s no big deal. But these images have a deep and detrimental effect on many women and girls, even if we aren’t always aware of it.

Beth Malcolm, director of the Canadian Women’s Foundation Girls’ Fund, says young girls today are being exposed to the same level of sexualized imagery at age nine that 14-year-old girls were 20 years ago. “Because of changes in media and communication they are facing things without the developmental maturity to handle it all. If there’s more opportunity to access media and you see it at younger and younger ages, you don’t necessarily have the emotional and intellectual ability to process it.”

To combat some of the effects of all this imagery, the Girls’ Fund works with girls between nine and 13 to make them media-proof.  “We’re building protective factors, things that will protect girls through their teenage years: confidence, connectedness, competency, critical thinking skills,” says Malcolm. “The idea is to build strong, resilient girls who can overcome anything they may face in their teenage years.”

Those teenage years, are, of course, critical when it comes to a young woman’s self-esteem. Hormones kick in, boys flock (or don’t), and you suddenly become aware of your sexuality. In a media-saturated age, that is often when the problems start. Girls’ confidence drops precipitously between grades five and ten, and depression increases.

Lack of confidence can play out in many ways, not least on the career front. “When girls are seeing their main value come from their appearance and not the other qualities they might have, it [impacts] how they see themselves,” says Malcolm. This vision that a young woman forms of herself at a young age can perpetuate itself for years – even a lifetime.

“When these girls are older and navigate the workplace they are not going go speak up for themselves,” Malcom says. “They’re not going to say they will go for that job, or that promotion, or speak up in meetings and think their opinions are valued.”

In short, they don’t reach their potential.


We’re building protective factors, things that will protect girls through their teenage years: confidence, connectedness, competency, critical thinking skills. The idea is to build strong, resilient girls who can overcome anything they may face in their teenage years.

Malcolm is determined to make this a bigger priority for society than it currently is. A recent poll the Canadian Women’s Foundation carried out showed that 90 percent of Canadians believed unrealistic, sexualized images of women were a problem. “There hasn’t been a concerted effort to take this on as an issue. There are people who talk about it. But that is what we need to see in Canada, we need to see a strong movement to say, ‘We’ve got to change this.’”

The 2011 documentary ‘Miss Representation’ shone a harsh light on the media’s representation of women and girls, and sparked a movement to change the status quo. The film was written, produced and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsome, wife of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome and a former actress who experienced her own share of objectification. Miss Representation is now, in addition to being a film, a non-profit organization and campaign to alter the way women are shown in the media. Imran Siddiquee is Miss Representation’s communications director.

“Part of what Miss Representation the film hoped to do is make this connection between the way women and girls are presented in the media and the lack of women in positions of leadership in America,” says Siddiquee. “If you look at how many women are protagonists in the Hollywood films girls are watching, it’s right around 17 to 20 percent.”

That number is reflected in the real world. Take the US Congress, also about 20 percent female, or the number of female executives, which is even less. He adds: “The fact that our girls and boys are growing up not seeing female role models in the media and real life impacts their ideas of what they can be and what other women can be.”

Of course, this widespread oversexualization also affects the way boys and men see girls and women. But Siddiquee says almost more disturbing is the extent to which women objectify themselves. He cites the recent Victoria’s Secret ad campaign for its PINK line – shockingly aimed at pre-teens – featuring underwear emblazoned with sayings such as ‘Feeling Lucky’ and ‘Call Me’.

“You’re not just teaching men and boys to see women as objects, you’re teaching girls to see themselves as objects. We see it everywhere; it has long term effects not just on political efficacy but health and mental health.”

Miss Representation is working on various fronts to change the prevalent media culture. It has more than 34,000 Twitter followers and a large Facebook community as well. “We’re giving people opportunities to voice their discontent with images of women in the media,” Siddiquee says, often by using the Twitter hashtag #notbuyingit.

After enough negative social media attention, many retailers have taken down offending ads.

The non-profit is also angling behind the scenes to get some of the media industry’s most powerful players on-side. Siddiquee says Miss Representation has been convening salons to try to get people in the industry to see the film and then engage in solutions. He doesn’t give too much away about their progress – after all, Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry and much of its takings come from young men. It seems unlikely the industry will change its sexist ways overnight.

He also points out that while society still tends to objectify women, it has a problem with men, too. Jennifer Siebel Newsome is currently working on a new film, ‘The Mask You Live In’, which Siddiquee describes as being about “what happens in a society where you value a certain type of masculinity above everything else, and the pressure on boys to be macho. It’s two sides of the same coin. Everyone is being limited by these gender portrayals.”

That film will come out next year.

Interested in making a difference? Click here to learn more about Our Charity of Choice, G(irls)20, which helps grow girls into leaders through entrepreneurship and education.