The sexualization of girls isn’t just one in a cornucopia of problems parents wring their hands about. It’s a major contributor to low self-esteem, risk-taking behavior, and inequality between men and women.
But it’s not just media and peers that encourage premature sexualization and an obsession with appearance. Parents often unwittingly contribute to their children’s sexualization.
But this contribution is not unavoidable, and by being mindful of the subtle pressures exerted on both themselves and their children, parents can avoid encouraging girls to conform to a hypersexualized gender role.
Mothers and Appearance
In one recent study, researchers gave girls between the ages of 6 and 9 a choice between a sexualized paper doll wearing tight, revealing clothing and a modestly-dressed doll wearing stylish jeans and an unrevealing shirt.
The girls overwhelming chose the sexy paper doll but were more likely to choose this paper doll in certain contexts.
Girls whose mothers were obsessed with their own physical appearance and who were exposed to lots of television and advertising were more likely to choose the “sexy” paper dolls. Girls exposed to television and advertising alone were no more likely than other girls to choose the “sexy” paper doll.
When mothers are fixated on their own attractiveness, they may choose media for their daughters that encourage this behavior. They may also be less critical of media messages.
Further, the media help to reinforce the messages about appearance that the girls are receiving at home. Thus by being aware of their own body image and limiting their daughter’s access to hypersexualized media, mothers may be able to prevent premature sexualization.
Fathers and Math
Several studies have found that fathers are more likely to enforce normative gender roles than mothers. They are more likely, for example, to encourage girls to dress up and to discourage “feminine” behavior from boys.
This is especially true when it comes to academic work. Fathers are much more likely to instill the message that math is not for girls and to allow girls to give up when they struggle with math or science.