A few of my Facebook friends posted a link to an article titled “Why Six-Year Old Girls Want to Be Sexy” and I agree with their comments that the content is both compelling and disturbing. Author Jennifer Abbasi describes a study in which young girls choose between an avatar of themselves dressed in revealing clothing or one dressed in more modest (though still fashionable) clothing. More girls chose the “sexy” version as the one they’d prefer to emulate and the one they perceived as more “popular.” The researchers conducting the study found several trends that influenced the girls’ perception: high media viewing with related maternal instruction, movement-oriented activities, and body-confident mothers all served as protective factors for the girls.
So did religion, in some cases. As Abbasi writes:
Mothers’ religious beliefs also emerged as an important factor in how girls see themselves. Girls who consumed a lot of media but who had religious mothers were protected against self-sexualizing, perhaps because these moms “may be more likely to model higher body-esteem and communicate values such as modesty,” the authors wrote, which could mitigate the images portrayed on TV or in the movies.
While not always the case—particularly when combined with forbidding media consumption, the study claims—religion can offer an alternative self-perception for females in a culture that tends to objectify and over-sexualize.
I firmly believe that God created humans as sexual beings, and this study reminds me of the critical role I play in modeling faith and feminine sexuality for my daughters. One way to do that relates, I think, to the protective effect that sports can have for girls: focus on what our bodies can do, the ways that our bodies can demonstrate strength and even pleasure, but construct self-image in ways that promote agency—bodies for doing instead of just being looked at.
It also calls to mind the church-wide emphasis on the Body of Christ. Christians are called to be the hands and feet of God, and envisioning our bodies as the limbs of Christ can fundamentally change how we move through the world. The bodies God created and called good are sexual bodies. That sexuality is still subject to sin and the Fall, a fact that requires me to think beyond whether my body looks good to whether it is doing good.