OPINION: Why parents should watch for dueling messages aimed at girls

Sabrina Johnson, 8, prefers outdoor activities to watching television. Courtesy of Thembi Johnson

Credit: Courtesy of Thembi Johnson

Credit: Courtesy of Thembi Johnson

Sabrina Johnson, 8, prefers outdoor activities to watching television. Courtesy of Thembi Johnson

Sabrina is 8 years old, and like most girls her age, she loves pink, unicorns, fashion and makeup.

“You can tell how she looks matters to her,” said her mom, Thembi Johnson.

And while both her parents are quick to remind Sabrina that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, they are deliberate in countering the "sexy girl'' messages that bombard girls at every age.

You’re more than the way you look, they constantly tell her. You are smart, kind and funny.

I’d argue that girls need to hear more of that, not less.

And yet it’s a good bet that the message being communicated to most girls, no matter the age, is be sexy, look sexy, live sexy.

That is not what they need to hear. That sends a decidedly different message, one no girl should hear, especially not now when we’re in the midst of a pandemic and their eyes are glued to television and computer screens all day.

According to a new paper by the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at the University of Texas-Austin, children in elementary school watch four and a half hours of television a day.

At that rate, they see almost 80,000 examples of “sexy girl” role models, in children’s programming alone, every year.

That ought to keep us parents and anyone else who cares up at night.

“The media want kids to do what they say, not what they show, but as every parent knows, kids pay more attention to what we practice than what we preach,” said Stephanie Coontz, the council’s director of research. “This research shows that ‘The Talk’ may be equality, but ‘The Walk’ is something else entirely.”

Christia Spears Brown is a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Courtesy of University of Kentucky

Credit: Courtesy of University of Kentucky

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Credit: Courtesy of University of Kentucky

The report, “Media Messages to Young Girls,” was authored by Christia Spears Brown, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky.

It spells out in no uncertain terms how children learn to desire “looking sexy” from the mass media and the ways in which this undercuts their own self-confidence and the respect they get from others.

The findings didn’t surprise Thembi Johnson of Atlanta.

“Women are constantly bombarded with both images,” she said. “We’re told we can be scientists and our brains are our most treasured possession while celebrities are photoshopped on magazine covers after having been made ‘famous’ by a sex tape. So yes, many of us applaud and admire Michelle Obama with her Ivy League degrees and her amazing compassion, intelligence and poise, but Kim Kardashian probably has more young girls who pay attention to her.”

Brown said that girl characters continue to be underrepresented in the most popular TV shows for elementary school children, but when they are shown, they are mostly portrayed in a sexualized way. Girls learn the rules quickly, telling Brown and her team that “the way to achieve high status and popularity is to be sexy,” even as they also tell them that sexy girls are not very nice, smart, or athletic.

Even when school is in session, Brown calculates, elementary school children watch four and a half hours of television a day. The numbers are even higher if you include music videos, video games, and social media. With 21 of the 25 largest school districts in the country choosing remote learning instead of in-person classes to start the school year, such exposure to sexualized images of females is likely to balloon this fall as children spend more time with media than in classrooms, playgrounds, and sports.

That’s a huge problem.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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When girls prioritize sexualized attractiveness, they minimize traits they think are “incompatible with sexiness, such as intelligence,” the research shows. Over time, prioritizing sexiness affects girls in the classroom, as girls begin to devalue and disengage from school.

For instance, “when researchers gave some elementary-aged girls a sexualized doll (‘Fashion’ Barbie) to play with for just five minutes, the career aspirations they reported afterwards were more limited than those of girls who played with the non-sexualized Mr. Potato Head.” Even more disturbing, children in elementary school exposed to pictures of sexualized women rate those women as less “human” and less worthy of being helped when in danger than non-sexualized women.

Johnson, who home-schools her daughter, said she makes a conscious effort to encourage her daughter to question societal standards about looks and the roles women play on television.

“We enjoy female characters on TV and in movies that are scientists and leaders,” she said. “We discuss topics that don’t draw attention to looks but rather skills both learned and natural.”

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