Over the past decade, the sexualisation of children has become a fiercely debated topic around the globe, with national inquiries recently conducted in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
We’ve also seen some spectacular retail fails. In 2006, UK chain store Tesco advertised a pole dancing kit in its toys and games section, labelled as suitable for children aged eleven years and up. In 2009, British bookstore WH Smith stocked a selection of Playboy-branded stationery products, marketed to school-age girls. And in 2011, US clothing label Abercrombie & Fitch released a range of push-up bikinis in their children’s line, said to be appropriate for girls as young as eight years old. Each of these products was eventually recalled following public outrage.
This sexualisation not only impacts on how young girls see themselves, our new research shows it also affects how they are treated and viewed by adults.
Past research suggests Australian girls as young as six-years-old place a similar emphasis on their physical appearance as adult women. Among young girls, this self-objectification brings about a number of negative psychological outcomes, including disordered eating, anxiety, and depression.
This research reveals how many girls perceive themselves in our culture. But very little research has asked how sexualisation affects the way in which young girls are perceived by others. One recent study found that people who viewed a photo of a ten-year old girl in highly sexualised clothing (a short dress and leopard print cardigan) rated her as less intelligent and less moral than people who viewed her in less sexualised clothing.
A large body of research suggests that when adult women are depicted in sexualised clothing, they are seen as less fully human. Studies have shown that sexualised women are viewed as having lesser minds (less capacity for thoughts and intentions), and are considered less worthy of moral consideration and treatment.
In our new paper, published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, we examined whether young girls who are presented in sexualised ways are perceived in the same, object-like manner.
In one study, we presented participants with images of women and prepubescent girls, either dressed in regular clothing or a bikini. We found that young girls were objectified – viewed as having less mental capacity and as less worthy of moral consideration – when wearing bikinis. They were objectified to a similar extent as adult women.
In our second study, we explored some potential implications of these objectifying perceptions of young girls.
Existing research suggests that objectification contributes to negative and unsympathetic responses towards adult women. One study, for instance, found that scantily clad female rape victims were seen as less deserving of moral concern relative to conservatively dressed victims, and were held to be more responsible for the rape. We wanted to gauge whether objectification had similarly damaging implications for perceptions of children.
In the study, participants viewed a photo of a girl, either wearing a black bikini or a black sundress. They were then presented with a short scenario in which she was described as being the target of bullying at school.
Once again, we found that when the young girl was depicted in a bikini, she was perceived as lacking mental capacities and as less worthy of moral treatment. Study participants blamed the bikini-clad girl more for the bullying than the sundress-wearing girl, and they were less concerned that she had been bullied.
Interestingly, participants didn’t think that one girl would suffer less than the other from the bullying. They simply cared less about the welfare of the girl when she was portrayed in an objectified way.
These research findings add considerable weight to public concern over the sexualisation of children. Beyond being increasingly rampant and having destructive effects on how young girls see themselves, sexualisation negatively influences how they are perceived and treated by adults. Before girls even reach sexual maturity they are susceptible to objectifying perceptions, and the resulting view that their experiences do not matter.
With this in mind, it is important that we remain vigilant against sexualised depictions of young girls in the media, and in the marketing of age-inappropriate products. Concerns over objectification tend to focus on adult women, but children can be objectified as well, with equally troubling implications.
Nick Haslam receives funding from the Australian Research Council.
Elise Holland does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.