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.