Power and Prejudice

Scientific perspectives on power, subtle prejudice, and discrimination

Why Do Grade Schoolers Want To Be Sexy?

Self-sexualization in young girls and what we can do about it

With October 31st just around the corner, I googled “girls Halloween costumes.” You’ll be happy to hear that our girls can be anything they want for Halloween (and by extension in life)—a super hero, a police officer, a doctor. Of course, some of the costumes were very gendered—princesses, fairies, mermaids, but what was more striking was the degree to which most of the outfits were sexualized.

The first image that popped up was a police officer costume. Guess what? Our girls can be police officers, if they don a tight blue top with a mini-skirt and knee high black boots. Once they thrown on their aviators, grab their handcuffs (only a little innuendo here), and strike a seductive pose, our little girls are ready to trick-or-treat. Or is it turn tricks for treats?

playboy_bunny_ears
We all know that girls and young women are sexualized by other people— just flip through the latest issue of Seventeen or stroll through the teen clothing section in a department store. What was once reserved for college students and high schoolers, however, has trickled down to grade schoolers. And this sexualization appears to be inescapable. Just channel surf cable television on a Saturday afternoon—think Toddler’s in Tiaras. Browse the toys section on Amazon—Barbie and Bratz dolls are ever popular. Or visit the playground at an elementary school—girls can be found wearing shirts that say “Flirt” or “Wink Wink” across their chests and bums. Thongs (and I’m not talking sandals of the flip-flop variety) are sized for and marketed toward our 7 – 10 year olds (APA, 2010).

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Not surprisingly, when girls are sexualized in the media or during their interactions with other people, their self-esteem takes a hit and they are at greater risk for eating disorders and depression. And the negative consequences do not stop there. Girls come to internalize this sexualized view of themselves (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), weighing their value as potential sex objects through the eyes of others. 

In fact, a recent study by Christine Starr and Gail Ferguson published in Sex Roles suggests that girls may choose to don the skimpy police officer uniform over other less sexy options, if it’s left to them. Starr and Ferguson showed 60 girls (aged 6-9) two sets of paper dolls that were identical in every regard, except one was “sexy,” dressed in skin-tight and revealing clothing with low cut shirts, midriffs baring, and extremely short skirts and the other was not sexy, dressed in long-sleeved shirts, belts, and pants.

The girls were asked to assess the dolls on 4 dimensions including 1) which they believed they actually looked like, 2) which they wanted to look like, 3) which would be more popular, and 4) which they’d prefer to play with. Although there were no differences in terms of which doll the girls believed they actually looked like, a strong majority of the girls reported that they desired to look like the sexy doll. Why might this be the case? Well, it turns out that the girls report that the sexy dolls would be more popular, having more friends and more people to sit with at the lunch table.

Interestingly, they didn’t want to play with the sexy dolls more, so marketers please put some clothes on Barbie and wipe that make-up off the faces of those Bratz dolls.

You might be thinking, these are just dolls. However, psychologists have long used preferences for dolls as a barometer for what is considered desirable in our culture. The sexy doll study harkens back to a similar study that was done by Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark (Clark & Clark, 1947) in which African American children were presented with two dolls who were completely identical except for skin and hair color. One doll was white with yellow hair and the other was brown with black hair. The children preferred the white doll over the brown doll, playing with the white doll longer and reporting that the white doll was nicer than the brown doll. This effect was particularly strong for those children who attended segregated schools. This served as evidence (used in seminal court cases regarding segregation) for self-hatred among African American children due to the inferiority implied by segregated schools that were separate, but certainly not equal.

If thinking about scantily clad 6-year olds makes your stomach turn, you're probably asking yourself what we can do about this. Shedding light on this revealing issue, Starr and Ferguson measured how much television and movies the girls watched as reported by their mothers. They found that it wasn’t simply the amount of media the girls consumed, but rather the effects of media consumption depended on how the mothers themselves felt about their own bodies. When the mothers reported often thinking about how they looked, then media consumption served as a vulnerability factor for preferring the sexy doll. However, media mediation also served as a protective factor. When mothers reported watching more television with their daughters and pointing out why some things the actors did were bad, girls were less likely to choose the sexy doll. Starr and Ferguson did not examine father's attitudes, but fathers could also mediate the media for their daughters.

So, as our girls don their Halloween costumes for trick-or-treating this year (or decide what to wear to school or the birthday party), you might want to think twice about what they're wearing and why they're wearing it.

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Copyright 2012 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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