Most girls as young as 6 are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, according to a new study of elementary school-age kids in the Midwest.The study was conducted by psychologists at Knox College in Illinois, using paper dolls. Sixty girls, aged 6 to 9, were shown two dolls, one dressed in tight and "sexy" clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit. Here they are:
Using a different set of dolls for each question, the researchers then asked each girl to choose the doll that looked like herself; that looked how she wanted to look; that would be the more popular girl in school; that she would prefer to play with. Across-the-board, girls chose the "sexy" doll most often. In two of the categories, the differences were significant: 68 percent of the girls said the "sexy" 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.
I am surprised too. Do most six-year-olds really believe anything about a possible connection between "sexiness" and "social advantages"? Do they even know what these words mean? And when they choose the "sexy" doll, claiming that this is how they would like to look, does that suggest that these girls are beginning to think of themselves as sex objects? Do six-year-old girls even know what a sex object is? Not knowing much about girls from the Midwest, I find this a little hard to believe.
Asking my four year old the same set of questions (substituting school with kindergarten), she also chose the doll in miniskirt, because she was more beautiful. When asked to explain, she pointed to the loose and baggy trousers of the other doll. Skirt is prettier. Bluntly, I then asked her to pick the sexy doll, but drew a blank, her empty gaze signalling that she was clueless what I was talking about. I can see at least one possible flaw with this study: Had there been a third option, say, a doll wearing a pink princess dress, like this one, my daughter (for what it is worth) would have preferred her to any other doll on virtually any question.
Any six-year-old will have seen women in revealing and "sexy" miniskirts on TV, and many girls, I guess, want to dress just like them. Luckily, this isn't true for my daughters -- not yet, at least; but perhaps it is true for the majority of (the slightly elder) girls in the Midwest. Does this mean that these girls want to be sexy too? If so, they should at least be able to see things under that description. And, frankly, I doubt that they are: if a six-year-old were to describe these women as sexy, I (for one) wouldn't take it for granted that she knew what "being sexy" really entails. What this study reveals, perhaps, is not so much the self-understanding of young wannabe sex objects, as the researchers seem to believe, but, rather, how young girls wanting to dress in miniskirts are likely to be understood by grown-ups (including researchers).
That is less startling, perhaps, but not less problematic. The fact that young girls do dress like that, and, consequently, are being viewed like that, is disturbing. (I am not thinking of the researcher here.) The researchers have some good advice as to how this trend might be fought. Not surprisingly, much of the responsibility lies with the parents.