Healthy People

Sex in Play

It takes media savvy and strong role models to promote healthy development in the face of what the American Psychological Association calls “the massive exposure to portrayals that sexualize women and girls and teach girls that women are sexual objects.”

Researcher Aurora Sherman (left) and graduate student Pamela Lundberg use a Mrs. Potato Head toy to study girls’ attitudes about female identity and roles. (Photo: Jeff Basinger)

Sex may sell everything from magazines to perfume, but the effects of pervasive sexuality in marketing and consumer products go far beyond the cash register.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association released a report — APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls — on the impacts of media displays of women as sexual objects. It summarized what psychologists know about how exposure to sexualized images harms children and teens — depression, lowered aspirations, eating disorders, lack of assertiveness, unhealthy sexual behavior, dissatisfaction with their own appearance — and offered recommendations to counteract them.

Two developmental psychologists at Oregon State University are exploring the consequences of sexualization for child development. A team led by Aurora Sherman is delving into girls’ career aspirations. She is asking how exposure to the impossibly proportioned but ever popular Barbie™ might affect their career choices. At OSU-Cascades in Bend, Elizabeth Daniels has focused on media portrayals of women in sports. Her studies contrast the effects of sexualized images with those that show women engaged in athletics.

Taken together, their results have implications for parents and youth organizations. They suggest that it takes media savvy and strong role models to promote healthy development in the face of what the APA calls “the massive exposure to portrayals that sexualize women and girls and teach girls that women are sexual objects.”

Choices for Girls

Among successful dolls, Barbie™ tops the list. The manufacturer, Mattel Inc., estimates that one is sold somewhere in the world every three seconds. According to the website, the doll’s inventor, Ruth Handler, wanted a doll that would expand opportunities for girls. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” she said.

When the APA report came out, Sherman remembers being startled on reading that so little research had been done on the influence of dolls on girls’ development. “If we’re going to have this conversation about sexualization, how can we overlook the most widely sold plaything on the planet?” she says.

Surprisingly, psychologists are only beginning to look closely at how dolls affect girls’ psychological health — their aspirations, self-confidence, body image and mood. And dolls are just one element of the popular culture that helps to shape attitudes and personality. TV, video games, movies, magazines and websites blare messages about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social expectations stem from gender.

“Toys are just one part of the socialization process,” says Sherman, an assistant professor in OSU’s School of Psychological Science. “But they are a very important part. Barbie displays adult features, and girls love to imagine what it would be like to be an adult.”

So, in looking at how dolls affect girls’ career choices, Sherman chose to use Barbie™ in her research. She and her collaborator, Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, (and chair of the APA task force that produced the 2007 report) designed an experiment in which 37 4- to 7-year-old girls were randomly assigned to play with either a Barbie™ or a Mrs. Potato Head doll for five minutes. The girls then answered a series of questions about career choices in 10 fields, five typically held by men and five by women.

The results showed that playing with Barbie™ had a clear impact on girls’ career perceptions. Girls who played with the Potato Head doll did not make a distinction between the number of jobs that girls and boys could do. However, those who played with Barbie™ tended to think that more careers are open to boys than to girls. “It’s difficult in social science to find an effect with this kind of treatment,” Sherman says. “I was astounded that after so short a time, the girls who played with the Barbie reported such an effect.” The team’s paper has been submitted to the journal Sex Roles.

The focus on youth is a change for Sherman who has specialized in health, social relations and aging. To find girls willing to participate, she worked with Corvallis-area families to explain the nature of the project. “Parents run the gamut from a strong dislike of Barbie to strongly liking her,” she says. “I was careful to remain neutral, so I didn’t inadvertently bias the pool.”

Sherman is continuing her work on the influence of dolls with support from the John C. Erkkila, M.D. Endowment for Health and Human Performance at Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis. Her focus is on the impact of sexualized dolls — Barbie™ as well as Bratz™ dolls (a more sexualized line of dolls made by MGA Entertainment) — on body satisfaction and self-esteem.

Sherman hopes to promote thoughtful discussion about the issues raised by these dolls. “Barbies are here to stay,” she says. “They’re a very loved, more than 50-year-old cultural icon. They’re very engaging dolls. They’re serving some kind of need for girls. So what can we do with kids and parents to minimize whatever the detrimental impact might be? If we’ve got a very well-beloved plaything, what can we do to make it work for us?”

Women in Sports

Athletics can build girls’ self-esteem and confidence, says Elizabeth Daniels, but media portrayals of female athletes can have the opposite effect. They fall into two categories: images of women performing a sport and images of female athletes in sexy poses. “Over the past four decades or so, researchers have studied how female viewers are affected by idealized images of women (i.e., thin, airbrushed, ‘sexed-up,’ etc.),” Daniels explains. “In general, these images make female viewers feel bad about their own bodies. Almost no research has investigated how female viewers respond to alternative images of women, e.g., female athletes depicted as athletes.”

At OSU-Cascades in Bend, Elizabeth Daniels (standing) leads an undergraduate research team of Brent Reynolds (left), Desiree Jackson, Taylor McGowan and Emily Clark. The assistant professor of psychology teaches courses in developmental science, gender issues, and research methodologies. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Sport Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Photo: Steve Gardner)
At OSU-Cascades in Bend, Elizabeth Daniels (standing) leads an undergraduate research team of Brent Reynolds (left), Desiree Jackson, Taylor McGowan and Emily Clark.  (Photo: Steve Gardner)

Sports is an important domain for youth and increasingly for girls. Since passage of Title IX in 1972, the participation of high-school girls in athletics has skyrocketed. Today, girls comprise 42 percent of all high-school athletes, and about 180,000 women play college sports.

Unfortunately, media often emphasize female athletes’ sexual, rather than athletic, qualities. For example, just before the winter 2010 Olympics, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition featured skiers Lindsay Vonn and Lacy Schnoor as well as snowboarders Hannah Teter and Claire Bedez in bikinis. Swimmer Amanda Beard appeared nude in Playboy. Tennis player Anna Kournikova is the only athlete to be named by For Him Magazine as the sexiest woman in the world.

Daniels speculates that profitable endorsement deals may influence some athletes. “Athletes have limited opportunities to gain endorsements, which are far more lucrative than their salaries,” she says. “The few endorsement opportunities that do exist for elite female athletes might require a focus on the athletes’ sexual appeal. Some female athletes may agree to participate in a sexualized photo shoot because of a lack of alternatives.”

In her studies, Daniels worked with high-school and college-age students. She showed them images of female athletes performing their sports, photos emphasizing their sexual qualities and sexualized images of models who are not athletes. She asked participants to respond in an open-ended format to elicit their opinions and feelings about the images. “An open-ended format opens up the possibility of responses that I could not have predicted,” she says.

Daniels found that both boys and girls tend to dismiss or devalue the athletic abilities of female athletes portrayed in sexualized images. In contrast, performance images of strong female athletes elicited a positive response. Both boys and girls respected these women’s strength and skills. Girls recognized the athletes as strong role models.

Taking Action

Images of women performing their sport “could be a powerful counterweight to the overly thin standard portrayal of females currently dominating the media,” Daniels wrote in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. “As educators, parents, and social activists call for a change in the content of problematic media,” she adds, “there is a need to suggest alternative imagery such as female athletes depicted as athletes. My research provides the evidence that these images have a positive impact on youth.”

To help girls understand and counter sexual stereotypes, Daniels has shared her results with community and professional groups. She has worked with the Bend chapter of Girls on the Run, an international organization that pairs running with information about nutrition, emotional heath and other elements of healthy youth development.

Daniels has expanded her research beyond athletics. She has found, for example, that boys and girls make positive evaluations of images of accomplished women in business and the military.

She is currently examining how girls are judged on social media sites such as Facebook. To date, she has found that girls who use sexy profile photos are perceived negatively by other girls. They are in a tough position, she explains. “They’re inundated with all these media telling them to be sexy and hot, but they are still developing the cognitive skills to understand what happens if they do that.

“We need to have a counterweight to the negative idealized images that create so much dissatisfaction,” she adds. “We need to do a much better job educating youth and families about how to manage media in their lives and to cultivate positive attitudes toward the body.”

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.