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.
Other studies have found that sexiness boosts popularity among girls but not boys. “Although the desire to be popular is not uniquely female, the pressure to be sexy in order to be popular is.”
Starr and her research adviser and co-author, Gail Ferguson, also looked at factors that influenced the girls’ responses. Most of the girls were recruited from two public schools, but a smaller subset was recruited from a local dance studio. The girls in this latter group actually chose the non-sexualized doll more often for each of the four questions than did the public-school group. Being involved in dance and other sports has been linked to greater body appreciation and higher body image in teen girls and women, Starr said. [10 Odd Facts About the Female Body]
“It’s possible that for young girls, dance involvement increased body esteem and created awareness that their bodies can be used for purposes besides looking sexy for others, and thus decreased self-sexualization.” (The researchers cautioned, however, that a previous study found that young girls in “aesthetic” sports like dance are more concerned about their weight than others.)
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…