The string bikini,the leopard-print mini-skirt, and the padded, push-up bra have crept into the wardrobe of the fashionable child.
A Kenyon research team of faculty and students last year exposed the retail reality of sexualized children's clothing. The trend could be seen as harmless fun for cute kids or as evidence of an ominous slide toward sexual objectification.
“I feel we're robbing them of their childhood,” Professor of Psychology Sarah K. Murnen said. “I do think there is potential danger.”
Murnen's research group found that 29.4 percent of 5,666 clothing items for pre-teen girls on retail-store Web sites had “sexualizing characteristics.” Dresses (56.2 percent) and swimsuits (67.1 percent) push the trend. Some stores targeting the so-called “tween” market had a higher percentage of sexualized clothes than others. Abercrombie Kids led the pack with the most “definitely sexualizing” items.
The Kenyon research was published in the research journal Sex Roles in May 2011. The study caught the global media gaze, with reports published by Atlantic Monthly, Glamour, and Time and accounts published on a number of science and research Web sites. The story reached Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe. Murnen was heard on talk-radio interviews in Salt Lake City and, with co-researcher Linda Smolak, professor emerita of psychology, in Columbus, Ohio.
Murnen expressed a certain wariness when discussing the sudden burst of media attention. The sexualization of children's clothing is “an important issue, and that's why we're studying it, but it's interesting to see what catches hold and what people are interested in,” she said. “There is a strong interest in protecting girls from this horrible culture, and so sometimes when you emphasize this sexualization of girls, you can think that girls are very vulnerable and you can encourage this way of looking at girls as victims.”
While exposing an aspect of a sexualizing culture, Murnen is loath to spur the stereotype of a weak or fragile female. “Girls do have a lot of capability of being able to deal with it,” she said. But girls exposed at ever-earlier ages are less able to engage in critical thinking about sexualized clothing.
The evidence indicates a steady creep of adult-like clothing toward ever-younger children. Clothing sizes in the study ranged from 6 to 14. Thong-like underwear, “cute-butt sweatpants,” and low-cut tops are in the mix. But most of the clothes with sexualizing characteristics also had childlike characteristics, and the ambiguity, Murnen said, allows merchants and advertisers to describe the clothes as merely cute and fun. Abercrombie & Fitch, the parent company of Abercrombie Kids, refused repeated requests for comment.
Sexualized dolls, including the Monster High and Bratz series, and vampy Halloween costumes reinforce the message that sex is a girl's best friend.
“There's danger in the focus on appearance, which we know is associated with self-objectification, which is related to body-image dissatisfaction and eating disorders and depression,” Murnen said. Self-objectification is an aspect of objectification theory, which holds that women are measured as culturally enforced objects of attraction by men. Women, in turn, are believed to internalize the social and media messages about their bodies and see themselves as objects for evaluation.
“It's possible that girls will be trapped in a role in some ways, that they won't be able to explore other identities,” Murnen said. “Are sexualized girls going to be treated differently by both adults and also the boys around them? I do think it's possible that this is going to encourage earlier sexual activity. They are not cognitively capable of behaving like sexual adults.” And they may deny themselves some real fun, such as running around a playground in comfortable clothes.
Kenyon's research was spurred, in part, by the 2007 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. That report was a response to public concern, the APA said, and the task force called for “future studies . . . to document the phenomenon of the sexualization of girls.” The APA reported that “ample evidence” shows that the sexualization of girls impairs physical and mental health, and the organization called for more education and training on the subject.
The research group looked at fifteen retail Web sites and coded clothing items for both sexualizing and childlike characteristics. Clothing was considered sexualizing if it revealed a sexualized body part, emphasized a sexualized body part, had characteristics associated with sexiness, or had writing on it with sexualizing content. Items of clothing were labeled childlike, definitely sexualizing, ambiguously sexualizing, or adult-like.
Back pants pockets featuring writing or sequins, for example, were considered emphasizing a sexualized body part (in this case, the buttocks). Clothes made of slinky, lingerie-type material, particularly in red, black, and magenta, or that included a leopard or zebra print had characteristics associated with sexiness. A top with “Juicy” on the chest or a pair of underwear with the sentence “Who needs credit cards?” were coded as having sexualized writing.
The Kenyon study was a good fit for a student research group that typically meets each week with Murnen. “We were looking for something for them to do to learn how to do research and that would be interesting,” she said. “They're really interested in critiquing the culture around them.”
Work done by the research group is outside the classroom and does not count for course credit, but that does not slow the enthusiasm of students. Samantha Goodin '10 and Alyssa Van Denburg '12 stepped forward to work more closely with Murnen and Smolak on the project. Goodin stayed in Gambier after graduation to code the clothing items, and she became the lead writer for the research article.
Goodin has since earned a master's degree in counseling at the University of Pennsylvania and is living in Philadelphia while applying for doctoral programs in clinical psychology. “I knew that in order to get into Ph.D. programs I would need research experience,” Goodin said. “It was great to get that experience, co-designing a study and helping write it up. It was cool just being in that research group.”
The media reaction was “really crazy” and reflected widespread interest in a hot topic. The sexualization of children's clothing is “something that people who are liberal or conservative see and have a problem with,” she said.
“I was interested in the clothing research particularly because of the significance that clothing can have, how other people see you and treat you,” Goodin said. “You look in the mirror and you see something. That has an impact. Putting on clothing is a little like putting on a role.” Once the role is taken on, “it might be harder to get out of.”
The study results, she said, are significant but not overwhelming. And she holds parents accountable. “I don't know how to put that nicely,” she said. “Be conscious of what you're putting on your kids. Be conscious of what's out there and what girls see when they go into stores.”
Celebrity role models are not much help. “A lot of role models are sexualized,” Goodin said. “That's mostly what you see, and that's mostly what you look up to. Kids are just getting older younger.”
Most parents have good intentions, Murnen said. “This is clothing that is associated with popularity,” she said. “They want their kids to be popular. They themselves haven't been taught to critically analyze their own self-presentation. Or they think it's not a big deal.
“We don't know what it's doing to the girls' self-identity. I worry about that. We're trying to do some of that research.”
More clear is that sexualized clothing is worn at a cost of competence or the perception of competence. Research by others into the perceptions of sexualized fifth-grade girls, as well as adult women, indicates that sexualized females are seen as less competent. And women and girls can be sidetracked by the demands, time, and expense of beauty rituals and the preoccupation with body image.
Parents can guide their daughters, Murnen said, by explaining the nature of sexualized clothes, by saying, “‘I don't want people to be looking at your butt all the time and not paying attention to the person you are and to your capabilities.'”
Objectification theory is now the focus of Murnen's research interest.
The fascination with beauty rituals ripples through the culture. “We have done some focus groups on why people do some of these things,” Murnen said, “and it does make them feel more confident in social situations. I do think that in the culture they exist in, in college especially, this is a way to fit in. They talk about putting on this look to be confident.
“There's a huge emphasis on attractiveness. Evolutionary psychologists would argue that this is natural. That what men bring to the reproduction of the species is dominance and resources and women bring attractiveness. So there's a big disagreement between evolutionary and feminist psychologists, who believe that we really need to look at the structure of society.”
The cultural surge toward sexualization can be traced to competitive commerce, the high tide of media saturation, and a backlash by the dominant, male culture to the advances made by women in recent decades, Kenyon researchers said. “Some people say it's a form of backlash, that, as women have accomplished more work-wise, there needed to be something to sort of bring back the patriarchal structure,” Murnen said. “Sexual objectification is a way to devalue women. Sexually objectified women are seen as less competent, and it also monopolizes women's energy.”
And sexualized clothing that reaches into the elementary grades can leave some parents frustrated.
“Many parents are stunned at how difficult it is to buy, for example, something other than a bikini bathing suit for a young girl,” said Smolak, who is a foremost expert on body image.
“This has been gradually evolving. When I was growing up in the fifties, you were starting to get some teenage girls doing things that, before, people thought were only for adults—like wearing make-up.
“As you get to the sixties, you start to get more discussion of sex, girls wearing more make-up and sexier underwear and advertising it. By the seventies and eighties you start to get more things like Victoria's Secret, very out there in the open, and when you're walking through the mall you can see all that.
“The industry that makes money off of women's appearance and women trying to be sexy kicks in and starts to market to younger and younger girls,” Smolak said. “At the same time, people like Britney Spears go on stage half-dressed, literally. You have all this exposure from the culture. You do have people benefitting from this—people who make make-up, people who make clothes. There is money to be made, we can't ignore that.
“It's been a gradual intensification of little girls wearing make-up, wearing bikinis,” she said. “The big thing for me is that normalization.”
Parents head to the beach with their three-year-old in a bikini, and the child accepts that as appropriate. “You explain to me, why does a three-year-old wear a bikini? It's less comfortable and more likely to come off in the water. Parents say they're just being cute,” Smolak said. Sun exposure is another reason to cover up children at the beach.
“The odd thing is you look at these little girls and you think, ‘Wow, that's really kind of sexy clothing for the little girl.' And nobody wants a little girl to be sexy. We don't want them to attract the interest of grown men. It's an odd combination.”
The bikini was introduced in France in 1946 and took hold in the United States in the next decade. French fashion historian Olivier Saillard has been widely quoted linking the bikini to “the power of women,” adding, “The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women.”
The perception of the empowerment of women by appearing sexy and loving it is perplexing for some traditional feminists. “We're still grappling with that issue,” Smolak said. “We still have that issue because we still have a context that is heavily defined by the male interests. What is sexy is still defined by what appeals to men. Sometimes you think you're making a choice and you're not.”
In a chapter called “Feminist Perspectives” for a book expected to be published this year, Murnen, writing with Rita Seabrook '09, says, “Beauty ideals are functionally and symbolically disempowering to women.”
Seabrook is pursuing a doctorate in psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan and said that work with Murnen and Smolak at Kenyon “changed my life.” She envisions an academic career for herself. “I can't wait to do that for my students, to open up their eyes to what's happening.”
The empowerment of women, Seabrook said, should not be based on physical appearance. “The problem with equating being sexy and being empowered is that it's almost entirely based on an extremely narrow version of physical appearance—tall, thin, big breasts, white.
“Those beauty ideals are so unrealistic in the first place. And people are spending a huge amount of money trying to accomplish those ideals. I think part of it is just the images the media presents of women. Really unrealistic.
“Sometimes I think this push to sexualize girls from a young age is actually sort of a reaction, a pushback, and it serves to distract women from being successful in other ways. Really, we are just teaching girls from a young age that their appearance is the most important thing.”
Seabrook misses the women's movement. “We did grow up in a later time than our professors,” she said. “The women's movement did exist. We don't have that now. Now we have to realize that feminism is in jeopardy.”
That women's movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is considered the Second Wave, and it has been followed, in some circles, by the Third Wave of feminism, an offshoot built on the earlier legal and social breakthroughs. The Third Wave embraces femininity, emphasizes diversity, and takes control of some words once considered epithets by traditional feminists. So-called lipstick feminists turn sexuality into empowerment. The jousting among feminists new and old turns on choice, Murnen said. “Some Third Wave feminists believe that the older feminists, like me, are still trying to victimize women with this whole sexual-objectification thing. That's not the intent. We want to develop critical consciousness about all of this.
“The problem with the sexualization of girls is that we feel like they're being sold this without also being provided the critical consciousness they need, ‘without informed consent' is the way we talk about it.”
For Smolak, the tide can be turned by consumers. “If enough of us say we don't want to dress our little girls this way, they'll start making other things for little girls,” she said. “They still need to wear clothes, and they'll still go to the beach, and they'll still go to parties.
“Let your voice be heard. And it works.”