A new set of studies shows that when girls internalize the societal pressure to look sexy, it can undermine their academic achievement.
For parents whose girls are facing an ever-more-sexualized set of costume choices, Halloween can be a “classic teachable moment … to express their values [and say] the ability to look ‘hot,’ that’s not where a girl’s worth comes from,” says Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of “High Heels: Low Grades” in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.
Researchers have known for years that identifying with sexualized images of women in the media contributes to lower self-esteem, body shame, and eating disorders among women. Now Professor Bigler has found that it can also lead to girls getting lower grades and devoting less time to developing competency in work-related skills.
One of her studies looked at 91 10- to 14-year-old girls. They took a 40-item survey to determine their level of internal sexualization – endorsing the idea that being sexually attractive to men is an important part of their identity.
Those who scored higher on this Internalized Sexualization Scale (ISS) had lower grades in three core subjects and on a statewide test. The study controlled for age, since academic achievement declined as girls got older.
Bigler and co-author Sarah McKenney also did an experiment with 95 11- to 15-year old girls. The girls thought they were part of a study on students interested in journalism, and they were asked to deliver a mock newscast that would be videotaped.
The girls were each given five minutes alone to prepare. They were told they could use any of the resources in the room, which included the 433-word news transcript as well as various beauty products. They did not know they would be videotaped and measured for how many seconds they spent reading the transcript versus putting on makeup. (They and their parents were told afterward what was really going on, and they could then drop out of the study, which several chose to do.)
The higher their ISS scores, the more time the girls spent putting on makeup and the less time they spent practicing the transcript.
However, to the researchers’ surprise, that had no overall effect on how many mistakes they made during the videotaping of the newscast. More research is needed to know if, as Bigler suspects, the transcript wasn’t challenging enough to require significant practice.
Overall, the degree of the girls’ internalized sexualization in these studies was in the 2 to 3 range on a 5-point scale.
At 10- to 12-years old, “caring about makeup won’t suddenly completely undermine your academic behavior,” Bigler says, but “what could happen is this loop: Even if you only underperform a little, you start to get this message that maybe this area isn’t my strength compared to other girls, and so I should concentrate on, for example, interpersonal relationships rather than work competence.”
Bigler says that girls face a “terrible bind” in which society tells them to be sexually attractive and researchers tell them not to prioritize that – partly because society judges highly sexualized women as less competent.
Girls need a lot of support from caring adults to go against the grain, she says: “If you know a girl who is not crumbling to the pressure to be hot, wear makeup and high heels, hide her intelligence and competence – go support that girl, because it is not an easy thing for them to do.”
In future research, Bigler hopes to evaluate interventions to help girls stave off unhealthy sexualization, such as those promoted by the grass-roots SPARK Movement (www.sparksummit.com).