Mommy vs. media in sexualization of girls: Where are the dads?

An article on AlterNet about sexualization of young girls concluded “Mothers are a strong predictor — even more than the amount of media consumption alone — of whether a girl will regard herself as a sex object.” But I couldn’t help but wonder: What role do fathers play in their daughters’ sexualization?

The article, titled “I Want to Be Sexy… Just Like Mommy,” is by Tracy Clark-Flory, and the hypothesis may be unexpected.

The new study reported on in the article focused on the media/parent divide within heterosexual, two-parent families. Using a set of two papers dolls — one dressed provocatively and the other dressed conservatively, yet fashionably — it gauged 60 young girls’ preferences to appear “sexy.” The girls, aged 6 through 9, overwhelmingly labeled the sexy doll as the more popular doll — the doll they’d most like to look like.

Some researchers argued that if children are predisposed to sexualization by their mothers, they will be more likely to accept and recreate sexual trends glamorized by the media. Others argue that the media’s omnipresence will inevitably turn young girls into sexualized creatures; it is up to the mothers to be role models for their daughters and help them develop a sense of media literacy if they are to “escape” the trend of sexualization. That sounds like a lot of responsibility to place on one parent alone. Where are the men in this picture?

Helping one’s child develop media literacy is always, ALWAYS a good thing — but why does this duty so often rest solely on mothers? Certainly mothers can provide valuable insight — as women, they inevitably have been sexualized by society in some way — but are fathers’ insights not equally valuable? Men have historically been the perpetrators of such objectification. A father explaining to his daughter the crude nature of current media trends would serve just as valid a purpose as a mother doing the same.

Of course, it’s understandable that the study found mothers’ behaviors as the primary predictor of early-on sexualization. As young girls, many of us aspire to emulate our mothers’ habits and appearances. (Dress-up in mom’s old clothes, anyone?) It makes sense that mothers who refrain from overt self-sexualization would inevitably encourage their daughters to develop similar routines.

But don’t fathers’ behaviors have an equal impact? Fathers who sexualize and objectify women suggest to their daughters that doing so is acceptable by society at large. Fathers who respect women, who refrain from consuming media that represents women as sex objects and little else, are just as valuable as mothers who discourage such objectification.

In two-parent families, raising children is a two-way street, and blame for the early onset of self-sexualization and objectification is no exception.

Especially recently, it seems that American mothers are receiving a whirlwind of pressure to have it all, balance career, friends, and family, and be perfect role models for their children. Should mothers shoot for the stars when raising their daughters, be strong role-models, and encourage media literacy? Definitely. But studies like this fail to grasp the reality that if both mothers and fathers assumed those responsibilities, young girls would be doubly prepared to enter a sexualized culture with a sense of self-worth and strength.

What do you think? What are the best ways for mothers and fathers to engage their daughters in discussions about sexualization and the media? For those readers who grew up with a mother and a father, which parent do you think played the bigger role in shaping your own sense of self-confidence and self-worth?

Hailey Magee is a Women’s and Gender Studies and Politics double major at Brandeis University. Her foremost interests include media literacy and empowerment of young girls. Hailey hopes to one day pursue a career in the political arena and become an advocate for gender equality.


5 thoughts on “Mommy vs. media in sexualization of girls: Where are the dads?

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  1. Absolutely spot on. As a mother AND father our girls look up to us as their first heros and sheros. It is ultimately our responsibility to be our kid’s role model. There is no cable in my home. The only thing we watch are movies and preselected videos series of programs I have approved of first. I wouldn’t want my daughter to flip through the channels and see Toddlers and Tiaras and think this is normal behavior.

    I spent so much time watching all the nonsense on tv that when I turned it off I went into reality tv withdrawal. Luckily it only lasted a couple of weeks and it has been so refreshing being free of that drama.

    Great article and thank you for getting the message out!

  2. My Mom and Dad were both very involved parents. My mother especially concerned herself with teaching me and my 2 sisters (and the 5 brothers too!) appropriate dress conduct and we were not allowed to purchase or wear anything that was inappropriate or sexual in nature. We learned which undergarments were to be worn under dresses and skirts and blouses. It seems mothers don’t teach their girls that any more. I for one, with a 7 year old daughter, am very aware of the affect media has on little girls and boys. They soak everything up in their little brains and I refuse to fall into the trap of allowing TV to dictate appropriate behavior for my girl. My husband and I are very up front about what is inappropriate and appropriate for her to watch, read, eat, hear, do, wear and see. No ifs, ands or buts. It is our job to shape her and help her become a strong, independent woman who carries herself in a respectable manner and respects her body and mind and doesn’t allow others to treat her without the same level she deserves. I love About Face and your efforts to get the message out!

  3. I love the accompanying “father” photo, where the girl child is working in service of Dad. Doesn’t that reinforce the girl’s view of her place in the world?

  4. Late to the party, but wanted to chip in: I think in addition to directly talking with and counseling his daughter, a father can dramatically impact her through the way he treats his wife. Does Dad view Mom as an object, only commenting on her looks? Or does he openly affirm her intelligence, value, and abilities? Does he care more about what she looks like or about who she is? Does he demonstrate attraction and affection towards her on her scruffy days, or only when she’s done herself up in makeup? Does he speak well about his wife to his daughter?

    All of those actions, in my opinion, send a strong message to the daughter about how she should expect to be treated and valued–by her future husband or boyfriend, yes, but also by society as a whole. I think it is powerful to have male involvement in that message, to give an early counter to the argument which claims this is “the way that men are”. A father getting involved demonstrates this to be an issue of right vs. wrong, rather than male vs. female. The more solidarity both parents show on the issue, the better.

  5. Men are stupid, can’t. think correctly and many times are missing in ads. Women don’t. need men. They can build, repair anything, make major decisions involving family matters. Women can run everything better than a man., even gove rnment. Women don’t. need no damn man. Where is the Father in their Daughters life.

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