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Sexy clothes - too much, too young

09 May 2011 Springer Science+Business Media

Study reveals that a significant proportion of young girls' clothing is sexualized

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."

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