What the 6 year old sex appeal?!
By Erika Davidoff
Guess what? Now, not just women, or teenagers, or even tweens want to be sexy. Our six year olds have decided that sexiness is their goal, too!
This study, first published online by the journal Sex Roles, recently came out claiming that girls as young as 6 are already starting to think of themselves as sex objects. Unfortunately, I'm not all that surprised.
The study itself, which was conducted by psychologists at Knox College in Illinois, uses some scientifically questionable methods – it doesn’t establish cause and effect well, so based on this study alone, it’s not entirely clear what the cause of this problem might be. Basically, girls were shown two dolls with identical faces, one wearing this black lingerie thing and the other wearing jeans and a cute blue sweater. Then they asked each girl to choose the doll which looked like her, which looked how she wanted to look, which was the popular girl in school, and which she wanted to play with. Commenters have pointed out that girls might have been influenced by other factors: that they might have a perception of the color black being "cool," or, since it is summer and we're in a ridiculous nationwide heatwave, they might see the sweater getup as "hot and sweaty." But the results are still meaningful: girls chose the "sexy" doll most often. Sixty-eight 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.
This study doesn't prove that young girls have a firm understanding of what "sexiness" actually is, or that they're consciously attempting to be sexy. But it does prove that there's a strong aspect of our society that is ingraining messages about appearance, which are often also about sexuality, into young children. Other investigations of this issue have provided more insight into its causes. For example, a 2011 study from Ohio that found that 31% of children's clothing has "sexualizing features" points toward the root of the problem.
The root is something like what Lindy West of Jezebel has described: the juxtaposition of the ideas that the human body is shameful and that the female body is a commodity. Six-year-old girls "internalize" the consequent idea that "bodies mean everything…and wind up 'wanting' things that they don't even understand: things that (supposedly) telegraph sexual desirability, things that (they think) will bolster their tiny ailing self-esteems," writes West.
Is the media to blame for the manifestations of this social mindset? These researchers found some interesting conclusions. According to the study, "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." Girls who had mothers who valued modesty (often more religious mothers) or who had conversations with their daughters about media messages were less prone to self-sexualization. Essentially, the study found that "mothers are key players in whether or not their daughters sexualize themselves."
So that means we're not defenseless against a tsunami of sexualization that's dragging little girls out to sea or anything. It's something we, especially those of us who are mothers (or fathers -- and the authors of this study are looking to do a similar investigation of the roles fathers play in how both young girls and young boys view sexualization), can combat. And ultimately, as terrible as a lot of what we see in the media is, the media itself isn't our only problem. Our problem is this deeply-ingrained societal notion that women's bodies can be treated like objects, which has been around for millennia and which is certainly going to affect young kids. Until we get rid of that, nothing's fundamentally going to change. But until then, we can help girls navigate this strange, sexualized world by explaining the media's mixed messages, by encouraging them to respect their bodies (athletics are great for this), and by being open, supportive, and loving.
This is a real example of that old Gandhi quote, "be the change you want to see in the world." Be a confident, positive woman, and the girls you encounter will take heed.