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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
This "sexy babes" trend is a big one.
"For young women, what has replaced the feminine mystique is the hottie mystique," Ms. Coontz says. "Girls no longer feel that there is anything they must not do or cannot do because they're female, but they hold increasingly strong beliefs that if you are going to attempt these other things, you need to look and be sexually hot."
In television shows, for instance, women are represented in far more diverse roles – they are lawyers, doctors, politicians. But they are always sexy. A woman might run for high political office, but there is almost always analysis about whether she is sexy, too.
In 2010, the APA released a report on the sexualization of girls, which it described as portraying a girl's value as coming primarily from her sexual appeal. It found increased sexualization in magazines, by marketers, in music lyrics, and on television – a phenomenon that includes "harm to the sexualized individuals themselves, to their interpersonal relationships, and to society."
Sexualization, it reported, leads to lower cognitive performance and greater body dissatisfaction. One study cited by the report, for instance, compared the ability of college-age women to solve math problems while trying on a sweater (alone in a dressing room) with that of those trying on swimsuits. Sweater wearers far outperformed the scantily dressed.