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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.

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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.


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