Sexualization is the process by which a person, group of people, or object comes to be seen or interpreted as sexual in nature. The sexualization of girls and women is of particular concern and cultural relevance because of its prevalence in many aspects of modern culture and because of the psychological impacts that it can have on the sexualized individuals. It is also a concern in children as, whether as a result of exposure to highly sexual media or as a result of a child's upbringing, an inappropriate level of sexuality can be prematurely imposed upon a child.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has defined four main points that can be used to distinguish sexualization from healthy sexuality. Any one of these criteria can provide evidence for sexualization; it is by no means necessary for all four to be present. The first point states that an individual has been sexualized if one bases a significant part of one's self-worth on sexual behavior or appearance to the exclusion of other qualities or behaviors. The second quality commonly possessed by sexualized individuals is the belief that physical attractiveness and sexual appeal are one and the same, and that there are no other elements to physical attractiveness.
The final two qualities of sexualization are based primarily on the treatment by others of the sexualized individual. If others sexually objectify an individual by using that person exclusively for a sexual purpose, such as pornography or prostitution, that person has been sexualized. Sexualization also occurs when one individual imposes sexuality on another without the first individual's consent. This occurs, for instance, when children are exposed to highly sexual materials or behavior.
Sexualization particularly, but not exclusively, in women and girls has been linked to a variety of psychological disorders and mental health issues that are nearly ubiquitous in modern society. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, low self-esteem, and depression of varying levels of severity, for instance, are all often closely connected to the first two of the APA's points defining sexualization. People are constantly exposed to the media's stream of images and videos of highly sexualized girls, many of whom appear to be very skinny, possess perfect skin, and wear expensive clothes. While it is unrealistic to aspire to imitate these images, such images may inspire powerful feelings of inadequacy that can lead to many different psychological conditions, including those indicated above.