A nausea-inducing study published in the psychology journal Sex Roles says that girls as young as six want to be “sexy.” The study, which involved 60 girls aged six through nine, looked at how media consumption and maternal influence affect young girls’ self-sexualization.
The upshot of the study, provocatively titled Sexy Dolls, Sexy Grade-Schoolers? is pretty much that as moms, everything is our fault. (Or our success, depending on which doll your kid picked, I suppose.)
Researchers at Knox College showed the girls paper dolls, one dressed in tight, revealing clothes, and one dressed in trendy, but loose-fitting clothes that provided more coverage. Researchers asked the girls to pick which doll looked like herself, which doll looked like she would be a popular girl at school, which doll she’d want to play with, and which doll she’d want to look like.
Overwhelmingly, the girls chose the “sexy” doll: 68 percent of the girls said they’d want to look like the sexy doll, and 72 percent thought the sexy doll would be more popular.
Researchers said that the girls had, as early as age six, decided that sexiness leads to popularity, which is incredibly disturbing, to say the least. The study found that several factors affected the girls’ choices, however.
Girls who participated in dance and sports were less likely to pick the sexy doll, said lead researcher Christy Starr. While she noted that some studies have shown that girls in dance and “aesthetic” sports like gymnastics and figure skating tend to be more concerned about weight, other studies have shown that girls who participate in those activities learn to appreciate their bodies’ ability to be something other than sexy or attractive for other people.
Interestingly, “media consumption” (that’s science talk for “watching a crapload of movies and TV”) didn’t affect girls that much, unless they also had a mom who self-reported that she worried about her own appearance or fussed about her clothes several times a day. Girls who watched plenty of TV and movies, but whose mothers “mediated” what the girls watched (e.g., did not allow certain shows) or used media for “teaching moments” were less likely to choose the sexy dolls.
In fact, the researchers were surprised to find that for girls whose moms were involved in what they watched, “for each one-hour increase in girls’ media consumption, the estimated odds that a girl would choose the sexy doll as popular decreased by approximately 7—11 percent.”
So yay for watching TV as a family!
Another interesting point was that girls with very religious mothers, who didn’t watch much TV or movies, were more likely to choose the sexy dolls, possibly because the girls were idealizing the “forbidden fruit,” researchers theorized. Girls with religious mothers who did watch TV and movies, however, were less likely to choose the sexy dolls, probably because those moms were, I don’t know, talking about that stuff with their kids.
“On the other hand, despite preferring to look like the sexualized doll and perceiving such a girl to be more popular, young girls were not significantly more likely to want to play with it,” researchers wrote. “This finding is interesting in light of the prevalence of sexy dolls sold in stores, such as Bratz dolls. Doll franchises claim that they produce sexualized dolls because that is what young girls want to play with; however, our findings argue otherwise.”
The study’s 60 subjects were primarily recruited from two public elementary schools and a dance studio.
“We did not survey the economic status of the girls and moms in the study,” Ms. Starr wrote in an email to me. “However the study took place in the Midwest and the demographics for the schools I surveyed were low-middle income.
It was outside the researchers’ scope on this one, but it’s also really important to be aware that fathers also play a role in all this. It’s been studied and proven that dads have tremendous impact on girls’ self-esteem. Ms. Starr said she hopes to study fathers’ roles in self-sexualization of daughters in the future.
So basically, what these researchers discovered is that moms are more important than TV. The study says flat-out, “we do not find media consumption to be the primary culprit for early sexualization of young girls.”
“The media’s effect on young girls’ self-sexualization acts in combination with maternal characteristics, rather than in isolation. Moreover, the mere restriction of young girls’ media may not be an effective solution; overprotective parenting strategies may backfire if girls feel that their personal choices are limited due to their mothers’ religious values and/or their own lack of TV exposure.”
It’s good to note that really, no matter what kind of insane stuff media throws at our kids, we can still influence our children’s values. We can do that by discussing what we see, or possibly even (gasp!) turning off the idiot box once in a while. We can choose not to buy craptastic toys, and we can dress our children in age-appropriate clothing that encourages healthy play.
How do you talk to your kids about media images?
(Photo Credit: Images used with explicit permission of Christy Starr, Knox College. The images were created using Dollz Mania ChaZie Maker.)
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