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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"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.
Research also connects sexualization to eating disorders, depression, and physical health problems. Even those young women – and experts say there are growing numbers of them – who claim that it is empowering to be a sex object often suffer the ill effects of sexualization.
"The sexualization of girls may not only reflect sexist attitudes, a society tolerant of sexual violence, and the exploitation of girls and women but may also contribute to these phenomena," the APA said.
Objectifying women is not new, of course.
"What's different is just the sheer amount of messaging that girls are getting, and the effective way that these images are used to market to younger and younger girls," says Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "They're getting it relentlessly. And in this busy world it's somehow harder for parents to stop and question it. It's like fish in water – it's the water. It's in the air. It's easy for it to get by us."
Help girls to see the problem
So what to do? To start, girls can become media critics, says Professor Brown's high school-age daughter, Maya Brown. The younger Brown serves on the Girls' Advisory Board of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, an organization based in Maine that develops girl-friendly school curricula and runs a variety of programs for girls.