While the media is often blamed for influencing young girls' desire to be sexy, a new study suggests mothers' attitudes play a more important role.
In the study, researchers found no link between the amount of TV and movies that girls ages 6 to 9 watched, and their risk of sexualizing themselves. (Sexualization is defined as valuing oneself solely on sex appeal, or treating oneself as a sex object.)
However, among girls who watched a lot of TV and movies, those who had mothers who worried about their own looks were at increased risk of early sexualization, the study found.
The findings suggest mothers are key players in determining whether girls exposed to media will sexualize themselves, the researchers said.
"It is likely that when girls both watch a lot of media — much of which carries sexual messages — and have mothers who objectify themselves, the two reinforce each other and lead to early sexualization," said study researcher Christy Starr, of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
The findings are, in a sense, encouraging, because they mean parents can do something to prevent early sexualization in their daughters, Starr said.
Mothers and fathers "should know that they are important teachers in their daughters’ life," Starr said.
Despite the ubiquity of sexualized messages young girls receive, little is known about the prevalence of early sexualization, or factors that might promote or curb it, the researchers said.
The study involved 60 girls from public schools and a dance studio in the Midwest. The girls were presented with two dolls that differed only in their clothing. One doll was "sexualized" — dressed in revealing, tight clothing — while the other was dressed more conservatively, in a sweater and pants.
The girls were asked several questions about the dolls, including which they would prefer to look like, and which they thought was "the most popular girl in school."
The majority of girls, 68 percent, said they preferred to look like the sexualized doll, and 72 percent said the sexy doll fit the description of the most popular girl in school.
The girls' mothers were asked how concerned they were that their own clothes made them look good, and whether they thought about their looks many times a day — questions aimed at measuring the mothers' self-objectification.
Among girls who watched a lot of TV and movies, those with mothers who objectified themselves were more likely to choose the sexy doll as the most popular girl.
What parents can do
Other findings from the study suggest parents may be able to curb early sexualization by talking to their daughters about what they are seeing.
Mothers in the study who said they instructed their daughters on the content of the programs they watched (such as discussing whether the situation was realistic or whether actions of the characters were good or bad) had daughters with a lower risk of early sexualization, Starr said.
Mothers should remember they are role models for their daughters.
Mothers who do not objectify themselves "send the message to their daughters that there are a variety of things about a person that are more important and valuable than simply being 'sexy,'" Starr said.
The study was published online July 6 in the journal Sex Roles.
Pass it on: Mothers' attitudes play an important role in whether their daughters begin to see themselves as sex objects at an early age.