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.