The Sexualized Girl: How Youth Understand Gender Stereotypes
Contributed by: Andrea Cueva
I serve as a fundraising intern at GEN this fall and, as a psychology major at St. Edward’s University, I wanted to write a blog post on one of the journal articles I recently read in one of my classes: “The Sexualized Girl: A Within-Gender Stereotype Among Elementary School Children,” published in 2015 at the University of Kentucky, by Ellen A. Stone, Christia Spears Brown, and Jennifer A. Jewell. I felt fascinated to learn why we think and behave in certain ways that are extremely influenced by our gender, ethnicity, race, age, social environment, etc. As I started venturing into the science of psychology, I noticed that the topic of gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles really attracted my attention. There has been a cultural shift in the past twenty years in how girls are seen and thought of in society because the media is constantly sexualizing them.
Research shows that children create stereotypes beginning at age two and they continue to hold those beliefs into adulthood. Previously, there had been little research on how children, both boys and girls, perceived the sexualization of girls; researchers took notice of the rapidly increasing phenomenon. The most compelling evidence of the hyper sexualization of girls and women exists in the media. This socializes young children to hold sexualized stereotypes towards females. The result of these sexualized stereotypes are shown in the negative psychological side effects girls are developing. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“The Sexualized Girl” consists of two studies conducted in 2013 which hypothesized that there is a difference from how children associate attributes and characteristics among sexualized girls versus non sexualized girls. They looked at whether this was affected by media exposure or could be predicted by their cognitive development. Specifically, they studied popularity ratings among girls thereupon finding that girls who wore sexualizing clothing (clothes that show a lot of skin like short skirts and crop tops) had higher popularity ratings than girls who did not wear sexualizing clothing. They also found that intelligence and athleticism were more associated with non-sexualized girls than sexualized girls.
Overall, 73.6% of children that participated in this study held a sexualized girl stereotype; they associated sexualizing clothing and physical attractiveness with popularity. This stereotype is highly affected by media exposure and gender stereotypes reinforced by society.
What does this mean for our girls? Where are these stereotypes being reinforced? One place is social media, a platform that promotes these sexualized messages which has been scientifically linked to depression in young girls. The constant exposure to unrealistic body types causes self-comparison, which only leads to negative thoughts in girls about their bodies, and lowers self-esteem. Without a doubt, social media is affecting the health and education of young girls worldwide. For these reasons, we need to provide young girls with the skills and knowledge to understand the effect social media and advertisements can have on them; this is the best and most effective solution. We need to empower young girls around the world by using their minds as tools to achieve their goals and dreams.