Sexualized Clothing on Kids Sends Troubling Signals

A young girl with a doubtful look in a blue shirt.
Age-appropriate clothing improves adult's judgments of pre-teen girls over sexualized clothing, new research finds. (Image credit: Goodluz, Shutterstock)

Preteen girls who dress in sexualized clothing are judged as less competent and less moral than kids in age-appropriate garb, new research finds.

Earlier studies have found that adult women who dress in revealing clothing are seen as less competent than women who are more buttoned-up. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in November even found that scantily clad men suffer similar judgment.

Clothing for young girls has become increasing sexualized, said Sarah Murnen, a social psychologist at Kenyon College in Ohio and the senior author of the new study. Last year, a study by Murnen and colleagues found that 30 percent of children's clothing at major retailers had sexualizing characteristics. Abercrombie Kids had the highest proportion of sexualized kids' clothes, with 72 percent of preteen clothing featuring sexualizing aspects, such as suggestive writing, slinky material or a revealing cut.

With this in mind, Murnen and her colleagues wanted to find out if people judge sexily clad preteens the same way they do adult women.

"Given that we now have more sexualized clothing for girls, how might that affect how people see them?" Murnen asked LiveScience.

Childlike versus sexy

The researchers recruited 162 students, 106 of them women, to view photographs of a prepubescent blonde white girl wearing one of three different outfits and rate them on traits such as competence and intelligence. In the "childlike" condition, the girl wore a gray shirt with ruffled sleeves, jeans and Mary Jane-style shoes. In the "ambiguously sexualized" condition, the girl wore a modest-length dress with a leopard-print pattern — a pattern that is often associated with sexy clothes, but is not overtly sexual.

In the final condition, the girl wore an obviously sexualized outfit: a very short dress with a leopard-print cardigan and purse. [Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos & Bizarre Facts]

In some photos, the girl was described as an average fifth-grader who enjoys reading and is a member of the student council. In others, she was described as being a top reader at the top of her class and president of the student council.

Describing the girl as a higher achiever did prompt people to rate her as more intelligent and capable, as you might expect, Murnen said. But across the board, people's rankings of the girl's capability, competence, determination and intelligence dropped when she wore the obviously sexualizing outfit. They also ranked her as having lower self-respect and less morality than more modestly dressed versions.

Sexualization and self-respect

"They did see her as less competent and less moral and less self-respecting, as if we are blaming the girl for wearing that clothing," Murnen said. Most likely, she added, preteens who pick these clothes aren't doing so out of a desire to appear sexual, but out of a desire to fit in and look stylish.

"I don’t think they necessarily think, 'This might make me appear not very serious to an adult,'" Murnen said. But if teachers or other authority figures make these negative judgments, she said, they may write them off as bad students and pay them less attention.

In fact, when the researchers asked participants for feedback after the experiment, many were quite aware of their judgments.

“I formed my assumptions based on her outfit even after being aware of her accomplishments," one woman wrote. 

"Seems like a caricature of a Bratz doll," wrote another man, referring to a line of sultry-eyed, mini-skirted fashion dolls. "Overall first impression isn't strong."

Sexy clothing may also be a problem for reasons internal to the girl, Murnen said.

"Monitoring your body in terms of how it looks — self-objectification — has been found to be unhealthy in terms of increasing body dissatisfaction and putting people at risk for depression and eating disorders," Murnen said. "I think that this monitoring of the body starting so early is putting girls at risk."

The researchers reported their findings online March 13 in the journal Sex Roles.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.