Sexy clothes: Too much, too young

Are clothing manufacturers helping to turn young girls into sex objects? According to a new study, up to 30 percent of young girls’ clothing available online in the US is ‘sexy’ or sexualizing. The study was carried out by Samantha Goodin, a former Kenyon College (Ohio, USA) student and a research team led by Dr. Sarah Murnen, Professor of Psychology at Kenyon College. In their view, this has serious implications for how girls evaluate themselves according to a sexualized model of feminine physical attractiveness. It makes them confront the issue of sexual identity at a very young age. Their findings were just published online in Springer’s journal, Sex Roles.

According to ‘objectification theory’, women from Western cultures are widely portrayed and treated as objects of the male gaze. This leads to the development of self-objectification, in which girls and women internalize these messages and view their own bodies as objects to be evaluated according to narrow standards – often sexualized – of attractiveness. Bearing in mind the negative effects of self-objectification such as body dissatisfaction, depression, low confidence and low self-esteem, Goodin and team looked at the role of girls’ clothing as a possible social influence that may contribute to self-objectification in preteen girls.

They examined the frequency and nature of sexualizing clothing available for young girls (children not adolescents) on the websites of 15 popular stores in the US. Sexualizing clothing reveals or emphasizes a sexualized body part, has characteristics associated with sexiness, and/or carries sexually suggestive writing. They also looked at whether clothing items had childlike characteristics e.g. polka dot patterns and ribbons.

Across all the stores, of the 5,666 clothing items studied, 69 percent had only childlike characteristics. Of the remaining 31 percent, 4 percent had only sexualized characteristics, 25 percent had both sexualizing and childlike features, and 4 percent had neither sexualized nor childlike elements. Sexualization occurred most frequently on items that emphasized a sexualized body part, such as shirts and dresses that were cut in such a way as to create the look of breasts, or highly decorated pants’ pockets that called attention to the buttocks. The type of store was linked to the degree of sexualization, with ‘tween’ (or pre-teen) stores more likely to have sexualized clothing compared to children’s stores.

The authors conclude: “Our study presents the ‘ambiguously sexualizing’ category of girls’ clothing. The co-occurrence of sexualizing and childlike characteristics makes the sexualization present in girl’s clothing covert. Confused parents might be pursuaded to buy the leopard-print miniskirt if it’s bright pink. Clearly, sexiness is still visible beneath the bows or tie-dye colors. We propose that dressing girls in this way could contribute to socializing them into the narrow role of the sexually objectified woman.”

Goodin S et al (2011). “Putting on” sexiness: a content analysis of the presence of sexualizing characteristics in girls’ clothing. Sex Roles; DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9966-8

The full-text article is available to journalists on request.

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5 thoughts on “Sexy clothes: Too much, too young”

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  2. As far as clothing, you have to consider at least two different sources for styles.

    The first is simple utility, such as protecting body parts subject to harm, pockets, and the like. The actual fabrics and construction may be highly influenced by utility as well: putting a 3 year-old of either sex in something that needs dry cleaning or is easily torn is pretty silly.

    The second source of styles has to be social. Basically, we use our clothing and other accessories to send signals and to show identity. For children, these signals are usually mixed as it is because one signal is “I’m a child” and another signal is “I’m a part of this (adult) group.”

    Because the “adult” group they belong to are–by definition–sexual and use sexual connotations, some of those style elements are going to bleed over if they show that identity.

    I mean, look at it this way…

    If mom wear’s dresses all the time, in a particular style, her daughter is going to see that as a characteristic of being a woman in her “adult” social group. If the daughter’s clothes are radically different and not anything like mom’s, there’s a psychological message going on there that she’s not like mom and not a woman/girl.

    Now you have fun trying to convince them to “act like a grown up” and do what’s socially accepted in the “adult” group like being responsible, not lying, etc. in part because you’re telling them they aren’t in your group…

    As far as being a sex “object”, it’s all a part of adulthood–the balance between a “social” person and a “sexual” object(ive)–and everyone has to figure that one out…

  3. I am not convinced that this is a problem. There are more women going to college now than men, two out of three honor society kids shown in my local paper are girls, the vast majority of high school valedictorians are also girls. I think it is the boys we most need to be worried about nowadays.

  4. I propose that women who have breasts is what “could contribute to socializing them into the narrow role of the sexually objectified woman”. In other words, men objectify women, not the clothes they wear.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with looking sexy. Taking the argument to its extreme, certain religious group want to dress women head-to-tail in veils, because sexy is (a) deemed bad (b) it is considered the woman’s fault for looking good, and leading-on men.

    Objectification is also not bad. Are waiters merely work objects? We all have a limited number of friends, and consider everyone else an object of some sort.

    You don’t have to be sexy to be considered a sex object. Most men, and I suspect many women, wonder what bulges beneath the clothes of the people the see every day.

    What may be bad, is how we react to people, irrespective of how they are dressed

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