by Kimberly Belmonte

When I first learned about MTV I thought it was the coolest thing- a whole channel of music?! All I wanted was to watch MTV like the other kids in the 4th grade, but my mom said no. Actually she said [cue New York accent] “turn off that filth and go ride your bike! Music videos are full of women who show off their bodies like that’s the most valuable thing about themselves. You’re a student, an athlete, and a good friend. You don’t need to get your value from your looks alone.” Annoyed as I was in 4th grade, I now see her point. Sexualized images of women, teenagers and even young girls are EVERYWHERE (on television, in magazines, in song lyrics (and on Kim Kardashian’s twitter). Young girls are constantly encouraged to look and dress sexily–from the clothes featuring slogans like “hot stuff” to the busty and scantily-clad Bratz and Monster High dolls and beyond.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about how all this sexualized media and hyper-focus on how girls look can be bad for girls. Turns out, researchers Christine Starr and Gail Ferguson asked the same question: can media lead girls to “self-objectify”? In other words, can the media cause girls to see themselves as a sexual object who are only valued for their sex appeal?

Researchers already know that girls develop beliefs about gender by looking to others of the same sex for cues on how to be a girl. For example, if a girl likes a character on TV who hangs out in her skivvies, she might begin to think that girls are supposed to look sexy all the time. Similarly, girls can pick up on how their moms act. If a girl hears her mama talking about her own body like an object, the girl might start thinking about her body that way too. Hearing her mom talk about the size of her thighs or seeing her checking herself in the mirror can send her the message that monitoring weight and preoccupation with looks–aka self-objectifying–is just what gals are supposed to do.

This made me wonder, what about those mamas who try and protect their girls from seeing all those sexualized images of women and girls by stepping in and turning off the TV? What about moms like mine who said no to MTV?

To find out, Starr and Ferguson[ref]Starr, C.R. & Ferguson, G. M. (2012). Sexy Dolls, Sexy Grade-Schoolers? Media & Maternal Influences on Young Girls’ Self-Sexualization, Sex Roles, 67, 463–476.[/ref] asked 6-9 year-old girls and their moms to participate in a study. The researchers showed each of the girls two sets of paper dolls (check out the picture above!). The paper dolls were either dressed in “regular” but trendy outfits or in “sexy” outfits (revealing, tight tops and skirts). Then they asked the girls questions about the dolls including:
1. If you could look like one of these two dolls, which one would you like to look like?
2. Which doll do you think would be more popular in school?

Wouldn’t you know, the vast majority of the girls picked the sexy doll as the one they’d like to look like and as the popular girl–which means that even before the age of 10, girls have begun to absorb the message that looking sexy is good and makes people want to be friends with you. I don’t know about you, but I have loads of memories of grade school being all about girls trying to look good, so this finding doesn’t surprise me one bit (although it does make me a little sad–and a lot angry–that such young girls have been socialized to believe this).

What I do find surprising, though, is this other thing the researchers found: as it turns out, the amount of TV girls watched wasn’t related to whether they chose the sexy doll; it was a little more complicated than that. Watching a lot of TV only seemed to matter when the girls’ mothers also self-objectified. Say what? When the girls were getting the message that the way their bodies look is most important from both the media and their moms, they were much more likely to associate popularity with sexiness. It turns out that mamas stepping in to turn off sexualized messages on the TV also need to be stepping away from the mirror!

A recent article in The Onion, “Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object,” attempted to resist this kind of sexualization through humor, making fun of the idea that girls’ are valued for how they look, rather than how they feel or what they can do. The article jokes, “According to [Ashley] Parker’s relatives, in the span of 14 months, the high school junior underwent a staggering metamorphosis from a young girl with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations into a truly stunning commodity.” While humor is one way to combat sexualization of girls, I think that Starr and Ferguson’s results say some really important things. We need to make sure that girls aren’t getting a “double whammy” of mom’s obsession with her thighs and Kim (Kardashian’s!) obsession with her derriere! So it turns out my mom was half right; turning off the sexualized media was important, but it was also really important to have a mom who didn’t objectify herself (thanks mom!). So, maybe the moral is that both girls and their mamas should keep talking, keep joking and keep doing the things that make them feel strong–because all of these are ways to undermine the idea that how girls and women’s bodies look is more important than how they feel or what they can do.