KINGSTON, R.I. – March 3, 2015, 2015 – Young people today are bombarded with racy images of scantily-clad girls in shorts that look like panties, dresses with plunging necklines and sky-high heels. Faces are caked with makeup. Hair is dyed and highlighted, even at the tender age of 11.
The country’s obsession with beauty ideals – and body image – is worsening by day and bound to take a toll on those most vulnerable: impressionable young girls.
The sexualization of America’s youth is explored in a new documentary, America the Beautiful 3, that will be shown, free of charge, at the University of Rhode Island April 7 at 6 p.m. in Edwards Auditorium, on the Kingston campus.
Darryl Roberts, the film’s director and producer, will introduce the film and participate in a question-and-answer session afterward. The film is the third in Roberts’ series about America’s fascination with physical perfection.
Screened nationally and internationally, America the Beautiful 3 investigates the harmful effects of sexualization on youth, covering a variety of topics, including child beauty pageants, teen pregnancy and the rape culture, and the ways in which the culture of sexualization harms both sexes.
The film also explores who might be responsible for promoting and perpetuating the epidemic of youth sexualization, inviting experts and teenagers to the discussion and covering the dangers of this problem as well as the current movements toward positive change.
URI psychology professor Lisa Weyandt says she saw the trailer for the film not long ago and knew right away that she wanted to bring it to URI. She reached out to Roberts, who was eager to share his work.
“As a woman and a psychologist I have an ethical obligation to be concerned about the over-sexualization of girls,” she says. “And it seems to be increasing in our society, and that is not good news.”
According to the American Psychology Association, which has been studying the problem for years, 85 percent of the children and adolescents portrayed in sexually suggestive advertisements are girls. The group also found that those types of ads have increased dramatically since 1997.
The ads leave little to the imagination, says Weyandt. “A lot of skin is exposed and the girls are dressed provocatively, drawing attention to them as sexual objects.”
This “objectification” is offensive – and potentially harmful, she says. Girls may develop a sense of self worth based on how they look instead of their intelligence, their strength and their actions. Research suggests they may suffer from low self-esteem and might not perform as well as their peers academically and socially.
The culprit? Many factors contribute to the sexualization of young girls but the media, as portrayed in the documentary, appears to play a critical role.
“The media has a profound impact on adolescents, and the media options available to children have exploded,” says Weyandt. “TV and magazines used to be the mainstays of media. Now children and adolescents have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, so all those images are readily available.”
Research also supports that there’s been an increase in access to cybersex and pornography for middle school and high school students. “They can easily access pornography sites online and on their phones,” Weyandt says.
For some girls their role models are media moguls like Kim Kardashian, she says. “Kim poses naked on the cover of a magazine and bombards the world with selfies, which are often photoshopped. The kids don’t know that. They want to look like her.”
When they can’t look like the images they see in the media, girls may experience body shame and body dissatisfaction and develop disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, says Weyandt. And it’s not only girls who are suffering. “Boys are having problems too,” says Weyandt. “Body dissatisfaction and eating disorders are increasing among boys as well.” Also, research shows that body dissatisfaction and eating disorders cut across ethnicity as well as socioeconomic status.
To solve the problem of youth sexualization, Weyandt says the first step is increasing awareness with movies like America the Beautiful 3.
“It’s great we’re bringing this film to URI,” she says. “It should spark a discussion about this issue and, I hope, make a difference.”
The motive behind the sexualization of youth is “money and profit and an ongoing desire to have girls and women be made into the objects of pleasure for male culture,” says Jody Lisberger, director of the Gender and Women’s Studies program at URI.
She, too, hopes the film will spark a discussion about the problem.
“I would hope that middle and high school students and parents will come to this movie,” she says. “It will give them the language to talk about and understand the excessive pressure of sexualization that young people are facing.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Roberts is a former television and radio host who now makes documentaries. In 2007, he won best director award from the Chicago International Film Festival for America the Beautiful. He has also made two other movies: The Perfect Model and How U Like Me Now, about relationships in the 1990s.
Sponsors of the URI event are the Department of Psychology, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity.
For more information, call Weyandt at 401-874-2087 or email her at
firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about the film, visit America the Beautiful.
Darryl Roberts, a documentary filmmaker. Photo courtesy of Roberts.
Lisa Weyandt, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island; and a promotional image from the documentary, America the Beautiful 3. Photos courtesy of Weyandt.