Should Six-Year-Old Girls Be Trying to Look Sexy?

The answer to that question is a definitive, “No!” Yet according to a recent study, that’s exactly what’s happening in our culture today. As reported by The Huffington Post:

Most girls as young as 6 are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, according to a new study of elementary school-age kids in the Midwest.

Researchers have shown in the past that women and teens think of themselves in sexually objectified terms, but the new study is the first to identify self-sexualization in young girls. The study, published online July 6 in the journal Sex Roles, also identified factors that protect girls from objectifying themselves.

Psychologists at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., used paper dolls to assess self-sexualization in 6- to 9-year-old girls. Sixty girls were shown two dolls, one dressed in tight and revealing “sexy” clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit.

Using a different set of dolls for each question, the researchers then asked each girl to choose the doll that: looked like herself, looked how she wanted to look, was the popular girl in school, she wanted to play with.

Across-the-board, girls chose the “sexy” doll most often. The results were significant in two categories: 68 percent of the girls said the doll looked how she wanted to look, and 72 percent said she was more popular than the non-sexy doll.

“It’s very possible that girls wanted to look like the sexy doll because they believe sexiness leads to popularity, which comes with many social advantages,” explained lead researcher Christy Starr, who was particularly surprised at how many 6- to 7-year-old girls chose the sexualized doll as their ideal self….

…The APA report, which inspired the new study, cited widespread sexualization of women in popular culture. “In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner … and are objectified,” the APA authors wrote. “These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.”

The authors cited examples like “advertisements (e.g. the Sketchers naughty and nice ad that featured Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails, with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop), dolls (e.g. Bratz dolls dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas), clothing (e.g. thong underwear sized for 7- to 10-year-olds, some printed with slogans such as ‘wink wink’), and television programs (e.g. a televised fashion show in which adult models in lingerie were presented as young girls).” Parents, teachers and peers were also cited as influencing girls’ sexualized identities.

I’m not a parent myself, so what’s going on in the lives of six-year-olds isn’t really on my radar. Maybe that’s why I was shocked at this report. I’ve also never come across this situation with my friend’s kids either. It should be noted that some of my married friends – even the women – have geek tendencies so an over-emphasis on looks isn’t really emphasized in their parenting styles. (Liking “Star Wars,” on the other hand, is a BIG deal.)

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this report though. When we look at the media images of girls and women around us, they often tend to objectify women, basing their worth primarily on their looks and level of sexiness. I wouldn’t think this message was filtering down to six-year-olds in the Midwest where this study was conducted, but that is apparently the case. I suppose TV shows aimed at girls have come a long way from Mrs. Garrett, Blair, Jo, Tootie and Natalie on “The Facts of Life” when I was growing up.

There are, however, some antidotes to this self-sexualizing of children. The report further states:

Media consumption alone didn’t influence girls to prefer the sexy doll. But girls who watched a lot of TV and movies and who had mothers who reported self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about their clothes and appearance many times a day, in the study were more likely to say the sexy doll was popular.

The authors suggest that the media or moms who sexualize women may predispose girls toward objectifying themselves; then, the other factor (mom or media) reinforces the messages, amplifying the effect. On the other hand, mothers who reported often using TV and movies as teaching moments about bad behaviors and unrealistic scenarios were much less likely to have daughters who said they looked like the sexy doll. The power of maternal instruction during media viewing may explain why every additional hour of TV- or movie-watching actually decreased the odds by 7 percent that a girl would choose the sexy doll as popular, Starr said. “As maternal TV instruction served as a protective factor for sexualization, it’s possible that higher media usage simply allowed for more instruction.”

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. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

However, girls who didn’t consume a lot of media but who had religious mothers were much more likely to say they wanted to look like the sexy doll. “This pattern of results may reflect a case of ‘forbidden fruit’ or reactance, whereby young girls who are overprotected from the perceived ills of media by highly religious parents … begin to idealize the forbidden due to their underexposure,” the authors wrote. Another possibility is that mothers of girls who displayed sexualized attitudes and behaviors had responded by restricting the amount of TV and movies their daughters could watch. Regardless, the authors underlined, “low media consumption is not a silver bullet” against early self-sexualization in girls.

Based on these findings, it’s obvious that parenting styles, approach to media, and the way religious faith is practiced all play influential roles in how young girls see themselves. I found it most interesting that avoiding media completely isn’t a suggested solution. Rather, the research encourages using popular culture as an opportunity to have meaningful discussions about right and wrong with kids. The media kids are exposed to should be age appropriate, but there are some things like public billboards which can’t be avoided, so discussion is a must.

It would also be wonderful if the purveyors of popular culture kept the innocence of children and the dignity of all human beings in mind when creating their projects. There are certainly books, films and TV programs out there, like those we acknowledge with Christopher Awards. There’s also the new women’s magazine Verily (profiled here) which promotes beauty, modesty and dignity to young adults. But for the culture to really change, there need to be MORE people grounded in gospel values in those industries which influence the general public – not just in the niche of Christian entertainment, but in the wider entertainment and advertising industries. By changing the culture, they will change the world.

And when six-year-olds are worried about being sexy, the world could definitely use some changing.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    We may wish the answer to that question were No, but it would not be a question at all if so many were not saying Yes. And what reason would anyone have to think differently? The only opposition to the sexual objectification of women in general comes from religion—you know, that notoriously misogynist oppressive force attempting to wage war on women’s right to be sexual objects at any age. Non-religious women may claim that they resist sexual objectification, but when the top item on the list of women’s rights, the one non-negotiable, is the right to be sexually available to men 24/7 throughout life without the responsibility of pregnancy, it’s hard to see what’s liberating or feminist (in the true sense of promoting women’s full humanity) about it. In a society that values women most highly for being sexy and infertile, tiny tot tarts are just one more logical expansion of the category.

    • Tony Rossi

      Great points, Joanne.

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  • Jonathan F. Sullivan

    As the father of a 5-yo daughter, I’m not terribly surprised by this. Just finding a modest swimsuit for girls is a serious challenge these days.

    • Kristen inDallas

      They aren’t cheap… but if it’s a big deal to you, try looking at an athletic store or a specialty store for competitive swimmers (Tyr, Speedo, etc) or if that’s not available you can always order online. Yeah the department stores “ought” to have a better variety of modest casual suits but they don’t. Plus when I was young I remember wearing my “olympian-like” gear in the pool and knowing how cool it was, even if it wasn’t a two-peice like so-and-sos. When girls would brag about their mom’s letting them get bikinis I got to maintain my pride by telling them I was on a swim team, and I couldn’t wear “frilly stuff like that” because it would “interfere with my flip-turns.” :) good luck!

  • Debra

    I totally agree with Joanne’s points. I also would point out, as many of us who have girls to raise probably already know, that even the “age appropriate” entertainment display young girls weary sexualized clothing, and it is hard to find anything else to buy for them as they get older. My own highly athletic 10 year old girl is already dealing with peers who insult her about her “weight problem” because she isn’t anorexic looking. In fact, we have a hard time finding things that fit her well because she isn’t super skinny, is tall, has larger shoulders and already some breast development. Meanwhile, she hasn’t shown the slightest interest in fitting in those clothes, really. she finds them uncomfortable, especially for playing the sports she enjoys, but there is little else for girls her age in the stores. It is starting to get a little easier again now that she has grown enough to wear small ladies’ sizes, but to be honest, I have had to start sewing quite a bit, because ladies’ fashions are also not always appropriate for a 10 year old. With the third one, who is now 6, I suddenly found that those trashy, sexually charged clothes have made their way all the way down to toddler sizes. I simply refuse to buy them.

    • melissa

      Buying clothes for elementary/middle school girl is a nightmare. Fortunately, uniforms take care of the school clothes problem, and jeans and tshirts do for most other times, but buying a dress for church or for dressy occasions is next to impossible. When I last took my 12 year old out to buy a dress, we went to 6 different stores before we found a dress that was even an option.

  • Ted Seeber

    I am not surprised. My son had his first “girlfriend” at age 3 (well, I should say instead a two year old started calling him her boyfriend at that age) and has been going steady for 4 years to a girl he met in kindergarten (not terribly exclusive, but they both identify each other as their favorite opposite-gender person- luckily due to how special needs classrooms are assigned in my city, they go to different schools and don’t see each other very often).

  • Corita

    I muse about this sometimes: how much of the natural urge to be (on a kind of continuum, I guess): liked, valued, prized, desired, adored, etc….is there, and would be there kind of separate from the …*language*, I think, of modern objectification. It’s an urge all people, including young girls, have…it is not itself sexual but that desire has its place in the sex drive that kicks in later.

    I guess what I am trying to think about is, how much of this is mimicry, how much is self-awareness (like, the awareness children get that they are being watched), how much is truly sensing what is beyond that being watched…namely, the desiring of the watching eyes, the need to consume?

    Children today are certainly more aware of themselves as objects (they *view* so much more, after all, and their gaze is directed to objectify, even in the subtlest ways. I am not sure how self-aware I was until I found my father’s stacks of porn magazines…then my whole language for thinking about and expressing myself as a person to others changed completely.

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  • Carol Johnson

    Women have no value in this country. We’re for sex–nothing else. Boys get to walk around dressed like people–easily 80% of the men walking around are in jeans and Ts, and the clothes fit. Girls walk around fully programmed that they are their bodies and their bodies are public property. And who is pushing, shoving, and cramming this sense of ‘self worth is 100% your body’? TV, movies, all forms of media, friends, coworkers, and these girls’ own parents, predominantly the mothers. We’re for sex. Nothing more, nothing less. We give life–we perpetuate the whole species, and we’re worthless.

  • Nick

    Worthless study. People don’t know sex until puberty. Hence, the researchers are either making baseless assumptions from the study, which is pseudoscience, or are projecting themselves onto the six-year-olds, which is unscientific.

    If you want a worthy study on the sexualization of children, read this:

    • Proteios1

      T some extent I agree with the understanding of words like love and sex…and many others, are internalized differently at different ages. To me, I think the problem is that they are identifying with such concepts, incorrectly or otherwise, AT ALL. These are adult concepts and these kids shouldn’t have any sense of their meaning, right or wrong. I understand the conflict you have with the observer imposing interpretation. As a scientists (sorry for being an apologist for the field, but…) I accept this as the inherent flaw in science. The so called you change the results by measuring them. But like most research it tells you something. To my mind, the danger that 6 year olds even think of this topic in this manner. Heck, I didn’t even start combing my hair until 6 th grade and even then it was the teacher after phys Ed. Who tried to embarrass, in a reasonably harmless way, me into some basic hygiene. I smiled at some girls, but was not savvy enough to conceptualize such ideas and translate that into some social strata.

  • suburbanbanshee

    First off, I find the study suspicious. It sounds a lot like the “sexy” outfit probably was just more attractive to the girls overall than the “non-sexy” outfit, which means it probably wasn’t the adult-perceived sexiness that made it appealing. The non-sexy outfit may not have fit the doll or may have been less well-made, for instance, or it may have been too fashion-forward for little kid tastes. If it were a really beautiful evening gown or was made in a color that girls liked more, the choice would be pretty clear. When my Barbie wore an evening gown, it wasn’t the “sexiness” that was appealing to me, but rather the air of fashion and serious grownup business.

    For a study like this, you’d really want to lay out a great many Barbies in a great many outfits, some “sexy”, some sporty, some businesslike, some just normal, with a variety of hem lengths and fittedness, as well as tightness and looseness. You’d have to provide “sexy,” reasonably fashionable, and definitely non-sexy variants. And you’d have to have every outfit in a variety of colors. You might also want to ask the girls about what they liked about the outfits, though of course kids that age aren’t necessarily sure why they like what they like.

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