Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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