Sexualization of Girls and Women in German Youth Magazines: A Visual Content Analysis for the Period from 1979 to 2013

Kathrin Karsay (University of Vienna, Austria)

Summary of the Project


Sexualization as an empirical phenomenon is relatively undisputed, though many scholars disagree on how sexualization can be explained or assessed. A lot of different perspectives and motivations exist within the theoretical and empirical research (Duschinsky, 2013a). Content analyses examined aspects of sexualization for different reasons. Some studies focused on the depiction of beauty ideals (e.g., Slater et al., 2012), others analyzed the portrayal of sexual behavior (e.g., Kunkel et al., 2005; Ortiz & Brooks, 2014) or the representation of gender stereotypes (e.g., Gerding & Signorelli, 2014). Yet other researchers examined sexualizing depictions from a more general perspective commonly drawing on the APA definition (e.g., Burgess, Stermer, & Burgess, 2007; Graff, Murnen, & Krause, 2013; Hall, West, & McIntyre, 2012; Vandenbosch, Vervloessem, & Eggermont, 2013). Therefore, the usability of previous research results is limited due to the lack of methodological consistency in terms of definition and measurement of sexualized content.

However, three main aspects of sexualization have been repeatedly coded when analyzing media content. First, sexualizing characteristics (e.g., Downs & Smith, 2010; Graff et al., 2013), like provocative clothes and sexualizing accessories or styling, are seen as key variable. Second, nudity/body display were frequently coded (e.g., Frisby & Aubrey, 2012; Hall et al., 2012; Reichert et al., 2012). It was coded whether a person is partially clad respectively naked. This aspect also includes the camera angle and whether certain naked body parts – without portraying the face – are focused. Third, sexual references (e.g., Frisby & Aubrey, 2012; Kunkel et al., 2005; Vandenbosch et al., 2013), like body posture, alluring body movements, flirting, kissing, or implied or depicted sexual intercourse, are commonly included to standardized content analyses. Other aspects that have been analyzed involve sexual gaze (Jung & Lee, 2009) or anatomical aspects like waist size or breast size (Burgess et al., 2007). Thus, the aim of the present study was to develop a comprehensive measurement of depicted sexualization. The proposed operational definition of sexualization allows a more detailed analysis by asking following research questions:

Research Questions

RQ1: How did the depiction of female sexualization (defined as sexualizing characteristics, nudity and sexual behavior) develop in German youth magazines over time?

RQ2: How does sexualization vary by the age of the depicted women?

RQ3: How does sexualization of the depicted woman vary with the type of image?

RQ4: How is the celebrity status of the depicted woman connected to sexualization?

RQ5: How did the depiction of childlike characteristics develop in German youth magazines over time?

Theoretical Framework

In the late 20th and early 21st century a shift of values took place which changed societal attitudes toward sexuality in many ways which is commonly referred as “the sexualization of society” (Duschinsky, 2013a; Gill, 2009). Sexuality has become a part of public interest and is therefore commonly presented in the media (Attwood, 2006). For this study, the role of the media is of major interest, since visual media focus particularly on appearance and the body. Drawing from Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts 1997) it is assumed that sexualization is reflected in sexually objectifying media presentations. The authors postulate that we are living in a cultural environment in which sexual objectification, most notably of women and girls, is omnipresent: “In sum, the sexual objectification of the female body has clearly permeated our cultural milieu; it is likely to affect most girls and women to some degree, no matter who their actual social contacts may be.” (Fredrickson & Roberts 1997, 177) Sexual objectification may emerge in many ways – for instance, in form of gestures, comments, gazes or whistles, all of which may be experienced in interpersonal contexts or may be transmitted via the media.

Today the term sexualization refers mainly to a mal-socialization, which confronts premature children – due to their media environment – with adult forms of sexuality (Duschinsky 2013b). The American Psychological Association (APA) provides another definition for sexualization. In a specifically established task force on the “Sexualization of Girls”, the manifestations of sexualization are identified. According to that, one can speak of sexualization when a) the a person’s value is defined exclusively by her/his sexual attractiveness or behavior, b) when attractiveness (narrowly defined) is equated with sexual attractiveness, c) when a person is sexually objectified, or d) when a person – notably a minor – is inappropriately confronted with sexuality (APA, 2010: 1). Any of those conditions indicate sexualization, which can affect both sexes regardless of age.


A quantitative visual content analysis was performed. Similar to the study by Graff et al. (2013) depictions of women were coded. The reliability was measured with Krippendorff’s alpha (KALPHA). For the final analysis only variables which attained α > .70 were included (Hayes & Krippendorff, 2007). A total of 1356 images from the two most popular German youth magazines, BRAVO and Mädchen, consisting of 28 issues from 1979 to 2013, were coded.

A coding scheme was created in order to examine the images according to homogenous criteria. All categories, subcategories and variables are listed in Table 1 (see APPENDIX). The current study aimed to integrate and adapt existing operationalizations from different media types in order to cover a holistic perspective of depicted sexualization. For example, the operationalization of sexual references corresponded to the analysis of TV-programs by Kunkel et al. (2005). The list of sexualizing and childlike characteristics (Graff et al., 2013) for the analysis of print images was extended by further items. Additionally, for the first time different types of images were coded. It was differentiated whether the image was an advertisement, a hybrid advertisement (e.g., product placements) or an editorial image.


The study extended existing findings on sexualization in youth media by contributing the perspective from a western European country: Germany. On the basis of the results it can be stated that sexualizing elements have become more common nowadays. Sexualizing depictions of adolescents and adults increased, although on a lower level compared to the US. While print advertisements did not change over time, editorial images – especially depictions of celebrities – add up to the increasing phenomenon of visual sexualization. It is up to future research to link the empirical evidence of sexualization to possible effects on girls and boys.


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Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

The study presents how categories of sexualization can be systematically conveyed from different media types in order to obtain one comprehensive measurement. Drawing from the theoretical foundations and the existing content analyses, three key variables of visual sexualization were identified. Future research might respectively take a broader understanding of sexualization into consideration – regardless of the media type.

Methodological Challenges

The main challenge lays in the assessment of less-manifest aspects of sexualization. Coding the body posture or the gaze toward the camera, resulted in substantial problems of reliability. Definitions of sexualization deliver an operational frame, but the individual indicators of sexualization are not explained satisfactorily and stay vague. Bearing in mind that sexualization is strongly dependent on the context and knows many variations (Nussbaum 1995) additional variables for implicit notions of sexualization have to be further developed.

Methodological Limitations

The methodological limitations coincide with the methodological challenges. Due to the of the quantitative focus of the study, less explicit aspects of sexualization were neglected. For example, the concept of sexual subjectification in which depicted women are not only passive victims but have a pronounced sexual self-awareness (Gill, 2003) was not covered by the current study.

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