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Too sexualized to be taken seriously? How sexualization affects judgments about girls accomplishment

By Jenn Chmielewski

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Okay, let me get real with you when it comes to my perspective on how sexualized girls are in the media and advertising. Just a couple weeks ago, I was shopping online trying to find some leggings to keep me warm before spring finally came. As I sat browsing through images of models wearing what I thought were really cute leggings, I came upon the startling realization that I was in the children’s section, and the models I was looking at were not 20-something women but pre-teen girls. Now, I will admit that I had not had my coffee for the day, but I think this still says something about how girls in advertising look just a bit older than they are.

And these images are everywhere. Last month’s research blog was about how sexualization in teen girl magazines has been increasing over the last few decades, and clothing retailers are increasingly marketing sexualized clothes to young girls. Since girls are inundated with clothes and magazines telling them they need to be sexualized to be sexy, fun and popular, what are they supposed to think? I know when I was in junior high (come on, it wasn’t that long ago), I was sneaking make-up and shorter skirts to school so I could look like the girls I saw in magazines while trying not get in trouble with my mom. With magazines showing pretty, thin girls alongside articles on how to lose weight, put on make-up and look sexy to find the right guy, I felt like my appearance mattered more than my smarts.

I was worried about how I looked to other people but what I didn’t think about was how my appearance might actually affect how smart other people thought I was. SPARK blogs have looked at some of the many ways that sexualization impacts the way girls view themselves, their accomplishments, and what “sexiness” is supposed to be. But does the sexualization of girls impact the way that adults view girls’ abilities?

Well, researchers Kaitlin Graff, Sarah Murnen, and Linda Smolak[1] wanted to know whether dressing in sexualized ways might impact how adults perceive girls’ competence. So they designed a cool experiment to find out. They asked college students to look at an image of a fifth-grade girl (they called her Olivia) dressed in either non-sexualized or sexualized clothing. The non-sexualized outfit was a grey t-shirt, jeans and Mary Janes and the sexualized outfit was a “very short dress” with a leopard print cardigan and a purse.

They also told participants a story about how accomplished Olivia was. Olivia was presented as either of average accomplishment for a fifth grader: “a member of the fifth grade. She earns average grades in most of her classes. She enjoys reading. Also, she is a member of the student council,” or highly accomplished: “Olivia is an active member of the fifth grade. She earns top grades in most of her classes. She won an award for being a top reader in her class. Also, she is president of the student council” (Sidenote: Is it just me, or do both of these girls sound pretty accomplished? I wasn’t on any student council when I was in fifth grade, that’s for sure).

So basically participants saw only one image of Olivia: the Olivia they saw was either sexualized or not, and portrayed as either highly accomplished or “just average.” After they saw little Olivia, they were asked to rate how intelligent, competent, capable and determined she was. They also had to rate how self-respecting and moral she was based on her clothing and accomplishment level.

You might be thinking to yourself, no one is going to judge a 10 year-old girl based on how she is dressed! All that matters is her accomplishments. We know better than to tell girls they aren’t smart because they dress in a sexy way…

If that is what you were thinking, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Unfortunately, participants completely judged Olivia based on how she was dressed. When she was in the short dress and leopard print cardigan, Olivia was perceived as less intelligent, determined, capable and competent than when she was in the t-shirt and jeans, regardless of how accomplished she was supposed to be. All that hard work winning an award and earning top grades didn’t make her seem capable to people, all because she was wearing a short dress. To make matter worse, participants also rated Olivia as less self-respecting and moral when she was in the sexualized clothing.

So where does this leave girls? There’s pressure everywhere for girls to buy into sexualized ideas of what we should look like, yet when we do, we get judged for it. It’s hard enough to be a girl figuring out who you want to be, what you want to do and believing in yourself without adults diminishing your accomplishments before you even get into middle school. So as we continue to focus on telling girls and ourselves that we are more than our bodies, let’s keep up the campaigns to hold companies accountable for how they portray girls. I shouldn’t have to look twice to tell if a company is trying to sell clothes to a tween girl or to me, an adult woman. And girls shouldn’t have to be force-fed the idea that dressing in a sexualized way is more important than feeling good about your body and brains.

[1] Graff, K., Murnen, S. K., & Smolak, L. (2012). Too sexualized to be taken seriously? Perceptions of a girl in childlike vs. sexualizing clothing. Sex Roles, 66, 764-775.

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