Sexualizing Our Youngsters: What Does It Mean – and Why Should We Care?

A new study published in the journal Sex Roles found that girls as young as 6 are self-identifying as sexy. Researchers presented two paper dolls to groups of girls ages 6-9 and asked them a series of questions about their attitudes and identity with the images. One of the dolls was sexually-objectified, with tight revealing clothing, while the other was wearing looser and less revealing clothing (see photo of actual dolls used at right). Researchers asked the girls to identify with which doll they wanted to be most like, which they thought they did look like, which they would want to play with, and which was most popular.

To me, the results were not surprising. Overwhelmingly, these girls identified with the “sexy” doll in all four categories measured. Results found that 72% thought the sexy doll was more popular than the non-sexy doll, and 68% wanted to look like the sexy doll.

We’ve known these ideals exist within teens and women, but this study was the first to show data that links self-sexualizing with girls this young. It was only a matter of time until the “Toddlers in Tiaras” phenomenon infiltrated the self-esteem and self-images of our youngest sisters and daughters. You might be asking, “So what? What does it matter if girls as young as six are identifying with sexually objectified icons, and internalizing the pressures to be sexually appealing to others?” Well, in 2007 the American Psychological Association released their widely received report on the dangers of sexualization and sexual objectification of girls and women, and found that sexualization is strongly correlated with negative self-image, eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, decreased ability to concentrate/focus, lowered scores in math and science, lowered condom-use, and even higher rates of sexual assault.

What is sexualization, as the APA defined it? Sexualization occurs when:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

With an emerging culture in which stripper poles are manufactured for young girls, child-sized “wink-wink” thong underwear is sold by top retailers, and bikini waxes are marketed to those just entering puberty, it’s not difficult to see the fragile position we’re putting our youngest generation into: be sexy, or go unnoticed.

These images don’t just impact girls’ self-expectations, they create a cultural landscape in which (cisgendered) boys and men are taught to expect the (cisgender) girls and women around them to live up to these sexy standards in order to be attractive or of value.

Feronia readers, what do you think about exposing our youngsters to these sexualized-images?

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