The sexualization of girls: Is the popular culture harming our kids?
© 2010-2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
What do psychologists mean by the “ sexualization of girls? "
According to the American Psychological Association,
sexualization occurs when “individuals are regarded as sex objects and
evaluated in terms of their physical characteristics and sexiness."
This doesn’t sound like something that the parents of young
children should have to worry about. Yet the popular culture seems increasingly
accepting of the sexualization of children.
Examples come from many quarters:
• A photo editorial in Paris Vogue that portrays pre-adolescent girls as heavily made-up, sophisticated femme fatales
• Clothing--including thong underwear--marketed for preschoolers
and elementary school kids that feature printed slogans like “Eye Candy"
or “Wink Wink"
• Fashion dolls marketed at 6-year-old girls that feature sexualized clothing, like fishnet stockings
• Beauty pageants for little girls, complete with heavy mascara, high heels, and bathing suits
• Pornography and sexually-explicit pop music videos that feature young women dressed to resemble little girls
The examples are creepy. But what exactly is bad about them?
The most common worries are that girls will learn to view themselves
as sex objects, or that girls will develop anxieties when they fail to
meet popular standards of beauty.
But I’m also concerned about the effects on the population at
large. Do media images of sexualized girls change the way we view
children? Are people liable to judge children as more sophisticated than
they really are? Are we more likely to believe that young girls are
willing participants in sexual activity?
There is surprisingly little research on the subject. Still, the worries don’t seem far-fetched.
For example, there is evidence that being self-conscious about
one’s sexual attractiveness interferes with intellectual performance.
People do more poorly on math tests when they are forced to think about
It also seems that certain kinds of sexual imagery can make ordinary people form unconscious links between children and sex.
Here are the details.
How concern with body image makes people less smart
Barbara Frederickson wondered if being concerned with one’s physical
appearance might impair one’s ability to think clearly. So she and her
colleagues devised an experiment in which they asked 82 college students
to change their clothes (Frederickson et al 1998).
Each student was randomly assigned to try on EITHER a crewneck
sweater OR a one-piece bathing suit. Next, the student was asked to
evaluate the garment and the way it made him or her look. Afterwards,
the student was given a math test.
How did the clothing experience relate to the students’ subsequent performance on the math test?
For male students, there was no difference between conditions.
But for female students, the swimming suit experience had a more
negative effect: Women performed significantly worse on the math test
after changing into the bathing suit.
A subsequent study found that both sexes were adversely affected
by the swimming suit experience (Hebl et al 2004). Does something akin
to the “stupid swimming suit" effect apply to our kids? Nobody yet has
done the research. But it seems rather likely.
Evidence that sexual images of minors influence the way we view children
Does the sexualization of young girls affect the way ordinary people
regard kids? This isn’t easy to test. As you might imagine, ethical
considerations make experiments very difficult.
The most relevant study to date tested the effects of “barely
legal" pornography, in which an 18-year-old model is made to look
younger. Researchers Bryant Paul and Daniel Linz presented 154
undergraduates --the majority of whom were women-- with
Some images depicted adult women who appeared to be at least 21
years old. Other images depicted females who appeared to be minors.
Afterward presenting these images, the researchers administered a
classic test of unconscious association. They presented the study
participants with a series of images and words on a computer screen.
The test worked like this:
First an image was flashed on the screen—e.g., a non-sexual image of a girl who appeared to be about 12 years old.
Next, a series of letters appeared. Sometimes, these letters
spelled out a word (e.g., “beauty"). In other cases, the letters spelled
out a nonsense word (e.g., “bartey").
Participants were instructed to press the ‘W’ key as soon as they
could tell whether or not the letters spelled out a genuine word. If
the letters spelled out a nonsense word, participants were to press the
Study participants evaluated an array of words, including neutral
words (“window," basket," cloudy") and words with sexual connotations
(“sexy" “erotic" and “arousing").
The researchers measured reaction times, and compared them with
the reaction times of people who had been shown pornographic images of
apparently adult women. How long did it take people to accurately
classify the words and nonsense words?
It depended on the words and the images.
The people who’d seen the “barely legal porn" were quicker to
recognize words with sexual connotations when those words were presented
immediately after an nonsexual, image of a girl who appeared to be around 12 years old.
Did the viewers of barely legal porn become more tolerant of child sexual abuse? Researchers found no evidence of this.
But the most accepted interpretation of word association effects
is that people have an easier time recognizing words when these words
are already “on our minds."
It’s called spreading activation--the idea that viewing an image
makes your mind activate memories and associations that are linked with
the image. So if you see a table, some part of your mind is ready to
think about chairs, too.
The “barely legal" study suggests that ordinary people--people who
aren’t pedophiles--have no trouble learning to associate 12-year-old
girls with sexuality. And that was after only a brief exposure to
simulated images of teen sexuality in the laboratory.
What happens when people are repeatedly exposed? What happens
when the imagery features 7-year-old girls, rather than adolescents? And
what happens when pedophiles see the popular culture endorsing the
sexualization of children?
These questions haven't been addressed by current research. But
the stakes seem high. Perhaps in the next few years, new studies will
help us understand the true costs of sexualizing children.
References: The sexualization of girls
Fortenberry JD. 2009. An article and commentaries on the sexualization of girls. J Sex Res. 46(4):249.
Fredrickson BL, Roberts TA, Noll SM, Quinn DM, and Twenge JM. 1998.
That swimsuit becomes you: sex differences in self-objectification,
restrained eating, and math performance. J Pers Soc Psychol.
Hebl MR, King EB, and Lin J. 2004. The swimsuit becomes us all:
ethnicity, gender, and vulnerability to self-objectification. Pers Soc
Psychol Bull. 30(10):1322-31.
Paul B and Linz D. 2008. The effects of exposure to virtual child
pornography on viewer cognitions and attitudes toward deviant sexual
behavior Communication Research 35(1): 3-38.
Sherman AM and Zurbriggen. 2014. “Boys Can Be Anything": Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions. Sex Roles
Wonderlich AL, Ackard DM, and Henderson JB. 2005. Childhood
beauty pageant contestants: associations with adult disordered eating
and mental health. Eat Disord. 13(3):291-301.
Content last modified 10/12