A recent study found that girls as young as six want to be seen as sexy. Christine Starr and Gail Ferguson, psychologists at Knox College in Illinois, used paper dolls to examine the self-sexualization of sixty 6-9 year old midwestern girls. While the study was small, the results were alarming. Most of the girls chose the sexualized doll over the non-sexualized one as their ideal self and as the one that was most popular.
The study defined sexualization as reducing physical attractiveness to sexiness, valuing someone based solely on sex appeal, or treating someone as a sexual object rather than a person (Springerlink). Each girl was shown two dolls, one wearing a trendy but loose fitting outfit that covered her body, and the other wearing tight, revealing clothes. Participants were then asked to choose the doll that looked like them, that was popular, that looked like they wanted to look, and that looked like someone they would want to play with. 68 percent of the girls chose the sexualized doll as the one they wanted to look like, and 72 percent chose the same doll as the most popular one. Most disturbing was the fact that 6 out of 7 girls chose the sexualized doll as their ideal (Springerlink).
The study examined both media influence (television and films) and maternal influence, and found some interesting trends. Media consumption alone did not adversely influence girls’ self-sexualization. However, girls who watched a lot of television and movies, and who had mothers who objectified themselves or were overly concerned about their appearance, overwhelmingly chose the sexualized doll as their ideal self. On the other hand, girls who had mothers who used the media as a teaching tool and did not objectify themselves, tended to choose the non-sexualized doll as their ideal. A mother’s religious convictions also played a role. If girls had a high rate of media consumption, but also had religious mothers, their self-sexualization was lower. However, if girls had a low rate of media consumption and also had religious mothers, their rate of self-sexualization was much higher, perhaps an indication of rebellion against religious authority (NBCnews).
In my own research, I have found additional causal relationships. There are many risk factors that come into play as a result of family dynamics very early in our lives when we have little or no control over them, yet they can significantly influence whether or not we are ever truly comfortable in our own skin. For example, the relationship with our fathers is a key factor, as is having strong female role models, particularly when our father is absent, abusive, or just not supportive. Early interpersonal relationships, combined with the societal and cultural messages we receive, influence all of our subsequent actions, including our sexual experiences, our intimate relationships, our decision to have children or not have children, our career choices, and our tendency to deal with life’s challenges either constructively or destructively. Young girls who experience these risk factors can often try to fill the void in their lives by objectifying themselves.
We have an obligation to ensure that today’s girls and young women have the support and the education they need—the life lessons of all of the women who have walked the path before them—so that they know they are not alone. They can turn to any one of us, and we will guide them. We need to recognize at-risk girls when they are young. We can fill the void with strong women role models or surrogate fathers who can work to foster healthy relationships, before the damage that has been done cannot be undone. We must reach these girls before self-doubt and self-loathing take root and grow like wild, noxious weeds, choking and suffocating any sense of self-worth. If we fail to act, we only have ourselves to blame for the next generation of broken women.