Girls Narrowly Defining Themselves ... Again, Says Youth Expert:

So many barriers have been broken down and so many opportunities have been presented for women to move into positions of power. But today, it's almost as if the pendulum is swinging back, says one youth ministry veteran.

When Ginny Olson, author of Teenage Girls, first began working in youth ministry two decades ago, women were in a position to gain more voice and confidence.

"Now ... girls are identified as sexualized creatures," she said in an interview for Youth Specialties, an organization that supports Christian youth workers worldwide. "My identity is based on 'can I attract boys' and their dress is much more about 'how much can I reveal.'"

"It's almost a pendulum swing back but it's not quite the way it used to be," said Olson, adding that the trend in young women is somewhat disconcerting.

"Girls are narrowly defining themselves again."

Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association released a report on the prevailing sexualization of girls in advertising and media images. Sexualization was defined as a mentality that someone's value comes only from their sexual appeal, excluding other qualities, or that a person has become sexually objectified, meaning they have become an object for another's sexual use, according to the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.

The sexualized images were found to have emotional consequences including low self-esteem and negative effects in physical and mental health including eating disorders and depression.

Such consequences are hardly portrayed in the media but are increasingly seen in young women.

"What scares me is just a sense of isolation and loneliness I get from teenage girls I talk to," said Olson, who noted an increased rate of depression and abusive behaviors as consequences.

Many girls don't feel connected to their families or even their church anymore and schools have become so large and populated that there is less connection with a teacher also. Many end up turning to the widely popular online social networks where sexual predators are usually lurking.

They go online, find companionship that isn't of any depth, Olson explained. "They're emotionally lonely."

Olson encourages youth workers to help girls to view themselves holistically, such as the gifts and talents they have, rather than only valuing themselves with the question "Am I attractive?"

"Can they capture a vision for their life, more than 'I'm somebody's boyfriend?'" Olson asked.

"The world is there if they want it," she said of the opportunities teenage girls have today. "For them to break out of stereotypes, they really [have to] say, 'God, I want to dream big. What could happen if I really became fully devoted to You?'"

Concerns in youth ministry today can a lot of times be focused on just getting kids to graduate, stay sexually pure and drug and alcohol free, and on track with daily devotionals, Olson noted.

"My hope is that we will continue to move youth ministry out from underneath the steeple and that we will continue to go out to the streets where kids are, she said.

"We'll begin to see youth ministry more holistically than now."

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