Menus Subscribe Search
Too Sexy, Too Soon?

(dbdavidova/Shutterstock)

Too Sexy, Too Soon? Not if You Hang Out at the Barre

• July 16, 2012 • 9:59 AM

(dbdavidova/Shutterstock)

Parents trying to counter societal pressure on girls to flaunt their sexuality have a new weapon: Dance lessons.

A 7-year-old shouldn’t be concerned about her sex appeal. But there’s increasing evidence that the pressure to look, and act, alluring is being felt by younger and younger girls.

How can parents help? A newly published paper provides several possible answers, including an unexpected one: Ballet lessons.

“Our findings indicate that there is reason to be concerned about the early sexualization of girls,” Knox College psychologists Christine Starr and Gail Ferguson write in the journal Sex Roles. Their study of 6- to 9-year-old girls living in the Midwest found a strong desire to look sexy, and a tendency to equate sexiness with popularity.

This attitude was widely shared, “with the notable exception of girls enrolled in dance classes.” Dance training appears to be “a protective factor against young girls’ sexualization,” the researchers write.

Starr and Ferguson’s study featured 60 girls recruited from two public schools and a dance studio, along with 47 of their mothers. The 6- to 9-year-olds were presented with two paper dolls—one dressed in a sexually provocative way (a bare midriff and short shorts), the other dressed in a stylish but non-revealing outfit.

They were asked to circle one of the dolls in response to four questions: Which doll do you think looks more like you? If you could look like one of these two dolls, which one would you like to look like? Leila is the most popular girl in school. Which one do you think is Leila? Which doll would you like to play with?

Meanwhile, the mothers reported the number of hours their daughter typically spent watching movies and television, and revealed the extent to which they controlled or influenced their kids’ media viewing habits. They also reported their level of religiosity, and filled out a survey designed to reveal the value they place on personal attractiveness.

Specifically, the moms were presented with statements such as, “I often worry about whether the clothes I am wearing make me look good” and asked whether they agreed or disagreed, and how strongly.

The results suggest that for today’s girls, self-consciousness about sexuality starts very early. The researchers report that “Young girls overwhelmingly chose the sexualized doll over the non-sexualized doll for their ideal self,” as well as the most popular girl in school.

However, the odds of their doing so were greatly reduced by any one of three factors: Having a highly religious mother; having a mother who monitors their viewing and discusses with them the shows they are watching; and, as previously mentioned, being enrolled in dance class.

Conversely, girls were more likely to have this sexualized attitude if they watched a lot of television and movies, and had a mom who placed a high priority on looks. The media imagery and mother’s attitude apparently reinforced one another to give girls the message that being attractive to the opposite sex is vitally important.

“It appears that the media’s effect on young girls’ self-sexualization acts in combination with maternal characteristics, rather than in isolation,” the researchers write. “Thus, reducing the likelihood of early sexualization of girls requires a more active parenting approach than simply restricting TV and movies.”

The positive impact of dance training was quite striking: The researchers note that “None of the young dancers in this study chose the sexualized doll for their actual self, whereas most of the (other) girls did.” So why were they relatively immune from this virus?

“One possible explanation is that girls and women involved in physical activities are less prone to sexualization because they become aware that their bodies can be used for other purposes besides looking sexy or attractive to others,” the researchers write.

While that’s quite plausible, it’s also possible that dance classes help develop self-esteem and friendship bonds between girls. All those factors could help counter the contention that there’s nothing more important than getting boys to notice you. Bunheads, it appears, know better.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.