By Grace Hitzeman
A study co-authored by Professor of Psychology Sarah Murnen, Professor Emerita of Psychology Linda Smolak, Samantha Goodin ’10 and Alyssa Van Denburg ’12 has recently garnered national media attention, including mentions in Time and The Huffington Post.
Entitled “Putting on Sexiness: A Content Analysis of the Presence of Sexualizing Characteristics in Girls’ Clothing,” the study encompasses 15 different websites and 5,666 clothing items, according to Van Denburg. “Over 30 percent of the clothing items we coded had sexualizing characteristics and, of all store types, tween stores sold the largest proportion of sexualizing clothing items,” she said.
“Clearly the tween stores had the most sexualizing clothes and I think girls know that,” Murnen said. “They know where to go to get the clothes that make them feel more popular, more grown up.”
Murnen said she does not blame the girls that choose the clothing. “I understand why they like it – the culture is telling them this is great.”
The study coded girls’ clothing items into five different categories: childlike, sexualizing, ambiguously sexualizing (both sexualizing and childlike elements), adult and other, a category few pieces fit. “Ambiguously sexualizing is by far what we saw the most of,” Murnen said. She added that an example of an “ambiguously sexualized” article of clothing would be a low-cut top that was polka-dotted.
The “adult” category was not that frequent, but it was considerably more prevalent in high-end department stores than in the lower end, according to Murnen. Murnen again recognized that tween stores were the biggest offenders. “Abercrombie Kids, which is the worst store we examined, had a padded bikini bathing suit for young girls. What essentially that does is make it look like a little girl has breasts.”
It’s not just Abercrombie, however. “Other than the children’s stores like Gymboree, everybody did have some sexualizing clothing, so I think it is a trend that hasn’t really been resisted by many stores,” Murnen said. “I was disappointed to see it at Target, for example.”
Murnen blames culture for this trend. “We live in a capitalist society that sells a lot of products, so there is going to be this media pressure for people to become interested in those products.” The demand itself, Murnen believes, comes from society’s urge for a fast-paced childhood. “I do think this whole cultural emphasis encouraging girls to grow up so fast is not healthy, and the way to grow up fast is to look older,” she said.
Another factor might be that “our culture tells women and girls that sexiness is a form of power – so it’s not surprising that girls will be interested in this,” Murnen said.
“They think it is a form of power, but what we’ve found from other research is that girls who are sexualized are seen as less competent.” Her suggestion to override this cultural influence is “to be critical of the messages that young people, girls in this case, are given from the culture. … This message about sexiness being powerful needs to be critiqued.”
Van Denburg agreed. “There is a huge need for awareness and advocacy,” she added. “Consumers need to be selective in clothing purchases for young girls and to be willing to contact customer service and corporate offices to advocate for more child-appropriate clothing.”
This past week, Murnen traveled to London to attend the conference “Sexualization of Girls and Girls’ Sexual Development,” sponsored by The University of London’s Institute of Education and Economic and Social Research Council. Part of her purpose in attending the conference was to examine how “England is doing more [than America],” Murnen said. “They issued a report earlier this summer on this whole issue of sexualization and this commercialized culture which plays a big role in all this. And their retailers have agreed not to sell sexualized clothing [to young girls].”
On the findings of the study, Murnen noted, “We don’t really know what the consequences of this message are, but we do think there are ways which girls are getting the message that they’re supposed to present themselves as sexy. … I’m also concerned that any kind of focus on appearance to this extent – paying this much attention to what you wear – leads to so much attention on the body. We know that this isn’t healthy. … It can lead to body dissatisfaction, ultimately to serious problems like depression, eating disorders and sexual dysfunction.”
Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.