The sexualization of girls: How the popular culture harms our kids

© 2010-2019 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.”

That isn’t something that children should ever have to contend with. But 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 music videos that feature young women dressed to resemble little girls

The examples are creepy. But what exactly is harmful 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, investigators in the U.K. interviewed 300 young girls between the ages of 6 and 9. Some kids had encountered sexualized media, and these little girls were more likely to express a preference for wearing sexualized clothing. They were also more likely to feel dissatisfied about their bodies and appearance (Slater and Tiggemann 2016).

There is also 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 their looks.

And it’s a sure bet 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 crew neck 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 sexually-explicit images.

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 ‘N’ key.

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 a 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 even younger kids? 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 coming years, new studies will help us weigh the true costs of sexualizing children. And meanwhile? We know more than enough to take a stand. We need to protect childhood.

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. 75(1):269-84.

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 70(5-6): 195-208.

Slater A and Tiggemann M. 2016. Little girls in a grown up world: Exposure to sexualized media, internalization of sexualization messages, and body image in 6-9 year-old girls. Body Image. 18:19-22

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.

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