Sexualisation of girls and the role of the mother

Carolyn Moynihan
26 July 2012
Reproduced with Permission

While media portrayals of women and girls as sexual objects are omnipresent and intrusive, we can blame too much on these public influences and forget the importance of what parents do. That seems to be the main message of a US study of girls aged 6 to 9 years.

Psychologists at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois (its Calvinist namesake would have been pleased) showed 60 girls a series of paper doll pairs, one dressed in tight and revealing "sexy" clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit, Jennifer Abassi reports on Live Science.

Presenting each pair, the researchers asked each girl to choose the doll that (a) looked like her, (b) looked how she wanted to look, (c) was the popular girl in school, and (d) 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.

Popularity is clearly a key to this trend, with many 6- to 7-year-old girls, even, choosing the sexualized doll as their ideal self.

The researchers looked at variables including dance (as an influence on body image), media consumption, the mother's example and mother's religious beliefs. The mother seems to hold the key, for good or ill.

Thus, media consumption alone did not influence girls to prefer the sexy dolls, but those who watched a lot of TV and movies and also had mothers who reported self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about their clothes and appearances many times a day, were more likely to say that the sexy doll was popular.

However, mothers who reported often using TV and movies as teaching moments about bad behaviours and unrealistic scenarios were much less likely to have daughters who said they looked like the sexy doll. Which may explain an unexpected result:

"… 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."

The mothers' religious beliefs also interacted with media exposure in an interesting way:

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.

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.

Lead researcher Christy Starr comments:

"Mothers feel so overwhelmed by the sexualizing messages their daughters are receiving from the media that they feel they can do nothing to help," she said. "Our study's findings indicate otherwise - we found that in actuality, mothers are key players in whether or not their daughters sexualize themselves. Moms can help their daughters navigate a sexualizing world by instructing their daughters about their values and by not demonstrating objectified and sexualized behaviors themselves."

Starr says she would like to do a parallel study of how fathers and the media influence boys' understanding of sexualized messages and views toward women.

The fathers' interactions with their wives and daughters on this issue would also be enlightening since other research has shown that the presence of an involved father protects adolescent girls from sexual activity and pregnancy.