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Little girls or little women? The Disney princess effect

In today's highly sexualized environment – where 5-year-olds wear padded bras – some see the toddlers-and-tiaras Disney princess craze leading to the pre-teen pursuit of "hot" looks. Do little girls become little women too soon?

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Many are trying to intervene when girls are younger, like Finucane, who doesn't advocate banning the princesses but taking on the ways that they narrow girls' play (advocating more color choices, suggesting alternative story plotlines). Some tap into the insight and abilities of older girls – with mentoring, for example. Still others take their concerns into the public sphere, lobbying politicians and executives for systemic change such as restricting sexualized advertising targeting girls.

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Together, they offer some insights for how, as Finucane says, to bring sexy back for a refund.

Soccer heading makes a bad hair day

The first step, some say, is to understand why any of this matters.

By many measures, girls are not doing badly. According to the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, high school girls perform as well as boys on math and science tests and do better than their male peers in reading. Three women now graduate from college for every 2 men. Far more women play sports, which is linked to better body image, lower teen pregnancy rates, and higher scholastic performance.

And opportunities for girls today are much broader than 50 years ago when, for example, schools didn't even allow girls to wear pants or to raise and lower the flag, notes Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. "It is important to keep all of this in perspective," she says.

Still, there are signs of erosion of the progress in gender equity. Take athletics.

"Girls are participating in sports at a much increased level in grade school," says Sharon Lamb, a professor of education and mental health at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. But, she adds, they start to drop out of sports at the middle school level when they start to believe that sports are unfeminine and unsexy.

The Women's Sports Foundation found that 6 girls drop out of sports for every 1 boy by the end of high school, and a recent Girl Scout study found that 23 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 17 do not play sports because they do not think their bodies look good doing so.

And looking good, Ms. Lamb says, is increasingly tied to what it means to play. Star female athletes regularly pose naked or seminaked for men's magazines; girls see cheerleaders (with increasingly sexualized routines) on TV far more than they see female basketball players or other athletes.

The effects are felt in academia as well. Earlier this year, a Princeton University study found a growing leadership gap among male and female undergraduates. Nannerl Keohane, who chaired the Princeton steering committee, wrote in an e-mail interview that "the climate was different in the late 1990s and the past decade." And she linked the findings to shifts in popular culture such as "the receding of second-wave feminist excitement and commitment, a backlash in some quarters, a re-orientation of young women's expectations based on what they had seen of their mothers' generation, a profound reorientation of popular culture which now glorifies sexy babes consistently, rather than sometimes showing an accomplished woman without foregrounding her sexuality."

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