MOVING GIRLS INTO CONFIDENCE: A Fact Sheet by The Canadian Women's Foundation

Publication Date: 
September 2011
Resource Origin: 
Canadian Women's Foundation

Why do you focus on girls when most media reports say boys are falling behind?

  • We strongly believe that all children—boys and girls—deserve to thrive, and we applaud other campaigns that work to support boys. As a women’s organization, our mission focuses on women and girls. However, our teen violence prevention programs are co-ed, designed for both boys and girls.
  • When girls start school, it’s true they are more likely than boys to do well in reading, writing, and forming friendships. Yet for many girls, this advantage is overshadowed by two serious problems—high rates of sexual assault and a sharp decline in mental health in adolescence.
  • Aboriginal girls in Canada are especially at risk. They experience alarmingly high levels of depression, suicide, addiction, HIV infection, and poverty.
  • We are also very concerned about the growing number of girls who are being victimized by sex trafficking. About 80% of sex trafficking victims in Canada are women and girls.1

How many girls in Canada are sexually assaulted?

  • In 2008, over 11,000 sexual assaults of girls under the age of 18 were reported to police in Canada. Since only about 10% of assaults are reported, the actual number is much higher.2
  • Girls experience sexual assault at much higher rates than boys—82% of all victims under the age of 18 are female.3
  • The highest risk is for teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 15. At this age, girls are much more likely to be sexually assaulted than young women aged 18 to 24.4
  • When girls are sexually assaulted, 75% of the time the perpetrator is someone they know.5
  • One third are victimized by a family member. Ninety-seven percent of the perpetrators are male—a father, brother, grandfather, uncle, cousin, or step-relative.6
  • Girls are four times as likely as boys to be sexually assaulted by a family member.7
  • Tragically, about 75% of Aboriginal girls under age 18 have been sexually abused.8
  • Almost half of all Ontario high school girls have been the victim of unwanted sexual comments or gestures.9
  • Over 80% of victims of dating violence are female.10

What happens to girls’ mental health in adolescence?

  • As girls enter adolescence, from ages 9 to 13, their confidence declines sharply and they experience higher rates of depression.
  • In Grade Six, 36% of girls say they are self-confident, but by Grade Ten this has plummeted to only 14%.11
  • In Grade Six, boys and girls report the same levels of depression—about 25% says they feel depressed at least once a week.12 However, by Grade Ten rates of depression in girls have jumped—they are three times more likely than boys to be depressed.13 For girls, depression typically stems from “low self-esteem, negative body image, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and stress.”14
  • More than 20% of BC girls say they have deliberately cut or harmed themselves.15
  • More than half of all girls wish they were someone else.16

What causes this decline in girls’ mental health?

  • According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the widespread sexualization of girls and women in our society plays a major role in the deterioration of girl’s mental health. Sexualization occurs when a person’s main value is believed to come from their sexual appearance—rather than their intelligence or other qualities—and when they are held to unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness.17
  • Research links sexualization with the three most common mental health problems facing girls: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.18
  • Girls are bombarded with media images of females who are tall, underweight, and white. These images of women are artificially created, using digital manipulation, and highly unrealistic. Almost all of these images show women as passive, posed in sexually provocative poses for the purpose of selling consumer products.
  • In many movies and television, females are absent or silent. A study of over one thousand children’s television programs revealed that male characters outnumber female characters two to one.19 A study of popular movies found that only 30% of all speaking roles are female.20 Women in movies are much more likely than men to show exposed skin, be dressed provocatively, and have an “unrealistic body ideal.”21
  • Given the cumulative image of these messages, it is not surprising that, as one researcher notes, “Girls live with the pervasive sentiment that they are not as important than boys.”22
  • Many media messages aimed at children are subtle yet powerful. A study of 121 children’s board games showed a common theme—the images on the boxes typically show boys running and taking an active role, while girls stand quietly or even appear nervous.23
  • When children are sexualized in media, 85% of them are girls.
  • As the APA reports—“Just at the time that girls begin to construct identity, they are more likely to suffer losses in self-esteem.”24

But hasn’t the sexualization of females gone on for years?

  • In recent years, the sexualization of even very young girls is becoming common.
  • According to Dr. Blye Frank from the University of Dalhousie, “The challenges that a 14-year-old girl faced 20 years ago are the challenges faced by 9-year-old girls today.”25
  • There are many examples of products that sexualize young girls:
    • Push-up bikinis marketed to girls as young as seven.26
    • Shoes for baby girls in the shape of stilettos .27
    • Pink underwear for little girls emblazoned with the slogan: “Who needs credit cards?”28
    • A “Pole Dancer” toy: children can press a button and watch a girl doll dance and gyrate around a stripper pole.29
    • Bratz girl dolls (marketed to four-year-olds) come dressed in “miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas.” Sometimes they are shown wearing “bikinis, sitting in hot tubs, mixing drinks, and standing around.” In contrast to these decorative and passive roles, Bratz boy dolls are active – they play guitar and surf.30
  • As one commentator has noted: “A sexualized childhood is a stolen childhood.”31

How does sexualization affect girls?

  • Through constant exposure to sexualized images of women and girls, females learn that their primary value comes from their physical appearance.
  • Seeing these images causes many girls to be highly critical of their bodies, undermining their confidence and increasing feelings of shame, anxiety and self-disgust.32
  • When girls are trained to obsessively focus on their appearance, they pay a steep price:
    • Research shows that an undue focus on outward appearance impairs girls’ ability to focus and concentrate.33
    • Sexualization is linked to girls’ well-known tendency to chronically underestimate their math abilities, and to drop out of higher level mathematics in high school.34
    • Negative body image makes girls less likely to be physically active—only 11% of girls aged 16-17 are physically active enough to benefit their health.
    • Undue concern about appearance causes girls to limit their physical movements during sports. In one study, the girls who were most concerned about how they looked scored the lowest in a simple ball-throwing test.35
  • There is ample evidence to show that girls are obsessed with their weight:
    • A study in BC found that 60% of girls who were actually too thin, thought they were too fat.36
    • In another study, about one third of girls said they had starved themselves or refused to eat in order to become thinner.37
    • Another study found that about 50% girls in Grade Six were dieting—by Grade Ten, this had increased to almost 60%.
    • Nine out of ten girls say the fashion industry and media puts a lot of pressureon them to be thin.38
  • Girls will go to great lengths to try and achieve the perfect body: In just one year, the number of girls aged 18 and younger who had breast implants nearly tripled.39
  • Studies show a link between body dissatisfaction in female adolescents and starting to smoke.40
  • There are strong links between sexualization and risky decisions, such as becoming sexual active too early, not using condoms, and having sex when they don’t want to. This is especially true for girls who have special needs or disabilities.41
  • Early sexualization, when combined with low self-esteem, can lead to behaviours such as ‘sexting’ – sending sexual photos of themselves through text messages. These digital images can quickly be spread to peer groups and beyond, causing great damage to girls’ emotional health, scholastic achievement, and even their physical safety.
  • The more sexualized images girls consume, the more they agree with women being shown as sexual objects. They also believe more strongly that a woman’s value depends upon her appearance. These girls also had more negative attitudes towards breastfeeding and menstruation.42
  • Pervasive sexualized images of women also affect how men and boys think of women and girls. The more TV that boys watch, the more sexist their beliefs become.43 Exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness makes it more difficult for some men to find an “acceptable” partner or to enjoy intimacy with a female partner.44

How can girls be helped to overcome these messages?

  • Research shows that—with the right help—girls can successfully navigate adolescence and avoid the negative patterns of self-objectification, low self-esteem, negative body image, anxiety, depression, and passivity.
  • When girls learn critical thinking and decision-making skills, they begin to learn how to interpret, challenge, and ultimately change the message that their value depends solely on their outward appearance.
  • The best time to teach these skills is between the ages of nine and thirteen. The best place is in a girls-only program, where girls feel free to talk, explore, create, and achieve, without worrying about how they look or what boys think.
  • Through the Girls' Fund, the Canadian Women’s Foundation invests in programs across Canada that help girls to build a strong foundation that not only helps them survive adolescence, but go on to thrive and succeed throughout their entire lives. The programs include field trips, science projects, self-defence training, media awareness, internet safety and more. In our programs for Aboriginal girls, elders share traditional teachings and activities such as dancing and drumming.
  • In a recent evaluation, parents reported that after attending the programs their daughters were more confident, less shy, and more physically active. Eighty percent of the girls said they had better critical-thinking skills, more self-confidence, and a stronger sense of belonging. They also reported improved communication skills, and were more able to focus on their strengths rather than their shortcomings. Best of all, they said the programs helped them feel better about being a girl.


Contact Information: 

Sarah Barker, Manager, Marketing and Communications
Canadian Women's Foundation
504-133 Richmond St. W, Toronto, ON, M5H 2L3
416.365.1444 extension 242