Lock Up Your Daughters (No, Seriously)

Dodai on Jezebel recently posted an item on Beyonce’s latest venture — ho-clothes for kiddies. She used the slightly distasteful ad as a jumping off point to talking about how the hyper-sexualization of young girls might lead to serious mental health problems, referencing a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association that says in part:

Sexualization has a range of negative consequences for young women, the task force finds. For instance, “studies show that when you begin to see yourself as a sex object, it leaves you with fewer cognitive resources to do things like math,” Zurbriggen says. Sexualization also can lead to body shame, depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem, the report notes.

The low self-esteem stuff I figured, but good god, math? That’s insane. Here’s the group’s support for that claim:

One study demonstrated this fragmenting quite vividly (Fredrickson et al., 1998). While alone in a dressing room, college students were asked to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited for 10 minutes wearing the garment, they completed a math test. The results revealed that young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for young men.

Holy crap. You may argue that the girls were simply uncomfortable, and any uncomfortable situation would impact their ability to perform on a math test, but the fact that the men showed no difference at all is a little unsettling.

The full report is available here, but warning: it may lead to shame, depression, and the sudden desire to buy a Judy Blume box set for every little girl you know.

There is a silver lining at the end, though:

Girls and girls’ groups can also work toward change. Alternative media such as “zines” (Web-based magazines), “blogs” (Web logs), and feminist magazines, books, and Web sites encourage girls to become activists who speak out and develop their own alternatives. Girl empowerment groups also support girls in a variety of ways and provide important counterexamples to sexualization.

Skepchick isn’t meant for very young girls — I mean really, we curse and drink and get a bit graphic sometimes. But, it makes me feel a little good that we’re a group of strong, outspoken women who are sex-positive critical thinkers. If a tween girl happens upon the site, I think she’ll leave a little better off.

While writing this post, I was struck with the realization that someone asked me to help them develop toys for kids that encourage critical thinking and I totally dropped the ball. I dug up the e-mail and will post the info now in the hopes that late is better than never.

Calling all scientists, educators, and humanists!
Please come to a focus group to preview fun new toys that teach kids about evolution.
Charlie’s Playhouse
Games and toys inspired by Darwin

Weds May 14th, 2008
Session 1: 5:00 – 6:30 pm
Session 2: 7:00 – 8:30 pm
Location: Near Providence, RI

If interested, please email Kate Miller (kmiller at with your name, phone number and which session you’d like to attend. We will call you to ask a few screening questions. Thanks.

Participants will be requested to sign a confidentiality agreement.

So, any Providence-area readers should give her a shout. It’s only an hour, you’ll get paid, and maybe one day some little girl’s birthday gifts will be one of Kate’s toys instead of a Bratz doll.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I don’t doubt that being overcome by emotions such as body issues or performance issues or whatever can cause one to test poorly (on anything, not just math). However, I take issue with this study and the gender implications.

    Several questions pop up in my mind that make me doubt the fact that the gender difference is significant:
    – Woman tend to feel colder easier. While the men may have been fine sitting in their swimsuit, the women may have been distracted by being cold.
    – What kind of swimsuits did they try on? Except for speedos men’s bathing suits are really all that revealing or different — they sit on men about the same no matter the body type. Women’s suits on the other hand come in a huge range of revealing-ness. Also how a suit fits one’s breasts or stretches around the stomach is a huge issue.

    I think if the study were better designed to actually get both genders thinking about sex and their body issues then we’d see an equal drop in testing ability.

  2. “Calling all scientists, educators, and humanists!
    Please come to a focus group to preview fun new toys that teach kids about evolution.”

    Heck with that. I want to buy these toys now.

  3. When I began to see myself as a sex “object” — or rather, as a sexy object — was probably when I started having sex: college. At the same time, I did boatloads of hardcore math and got a mechanical engineering degree.

    Since sex lowered my brainpower, just think of the genius we have lost due to me being sexified :o

  4. Since some people think that many traits in humans are the result of neoteny in chimps, I wonder if the tendency to push sexualization younger is typical to humans (or, indeed, typical in animals in general). Not that I’m saying it’s justified or acceptable to dress tots like tarts, mind. I just wonder if its something that takes a certain amount of struggle to resist in the species at large.

    Also, as a man, I think I have to contradict the findings about boys, bathing suits, and testing. I always did far worse on my math tests whenever I wore my bikini.

  5. What catcubed said.

    Also, I really doubt that “cognitive resources” are like magic points in a role-playing game. “Oh, I need 5 MP to cast this pass-my-math-test spell, but the Curse of Sexual Awareness is draining 1 MP per turn. . . .”

  6. I would think the men would perform worse due to how much time they spend looking in the mirror admiring their “package” in the bathing suit.

  7. and here I thought that my sexiness and my inability to do math were totally unrelated! This fully explains why getting my boyfriend to tutor me was never terribly effective.

    but for serious now. These results are mildly troubling, but one can hope that this will help spur some intense pro-girlness in the media. Also, I sincerely hope that this will lead to Bratz doll burnings en masse. I hate those sexed up trollops. I hate them hard. It is my biggest fear in life that I will have a little girl and she will be really into those and there will be a toy store battle between whether a prostitute doll and a microscope set gets to come home with us… I digress.

    moral of the story

  8. @LOLkate — it’s a traumatic experience having a girly-girl. My daughter (age 4) has chosen a favorite colors: pink and purple. I am struggling to be supportive…

    At least she doesn’t want dress like a streetwalker. Yet :(

  9. Well, I’m a guy, so it doesn’t seem to apply to me, but I got sexy and started hating math right around the same time… Although, I also found out a six-foot high jump was better at impressing the girls than an A on the trig exam, so that might be the root, now that I think about it…

  10. “Meh, don’t take those studies seriously… they’re just anecdotes!”

    Ha! great call back thad!

  11. Erica – Relax about the pink and purple. My youngest daughter went through all that, and I tricked her good :-). I let her play with dolls and dress up, and took her bug-hunting and bat-watching and stargazing and built Lego spaceships for Polly Pocket with her and she never realized science and technology and exploration weren’t part of being a “normal” girl.
    Now she’s a fiesty 12yo who rages at the sexism she sees in the media and I couldn’t be prouder.
    (And she dresses in t-shirts and torn jeans, just like her dad.)

  12. I totally agree, aiabx. I happen to love many shades of the color pink (works with my skin tone!) and purple, and I wear lipstick and pretty dresses and lotions that smell great AND I’m a skeptical sport-playing sass-talking mofo. You don’t have to choose.

  13. Silly conclusions.

    They were selecting, with this clothing test, girls more interested in socialization than math.

    If you did a separate test on the men, and included, say sports jerseys instead of swimwear, I’ll bet the jerseys tend to cause boys that are less interested in math to select themselves.

    Clothing does not cause mediocre intelligence. Mediocre I.Q. people tend to pick clothing based on their local culture.

    Nerds do dress differently … they are, as a rule, unwilling to devote time to highly successful socialization … an activity that takes a disproportionately large amount of time.

  14. Mind you, there are exceptions … some smart folks are willing to take time out for sport or socialization … I am talking trends here.

  15. My understanding is that the reason adult women are lousy at math is because some guys keep telling them that 3 inches equals 6 inches. My guess is that over time, women figure out which guys need to be told that 3 inches equals 6 inches, they humor them, and then those are the guys who think women are lousy at math. Every woman I have ever known has always been great at math ;)

  16. daedalus – no, that’s why they’re lousy at parallel parking. The question is, if that’s a sexist joke is it sexist against women or against men?

    Incidentally, after the recent news story from Austria, I find the title of this thread slightly unsettling.

  17. Yes, having a little girl is terrifying. This particular study sounds weird, but there is other data backing up the concept that over sexualization of girls isn’t a good thing. If you put any stock in those fuzzy social sciences, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood ( is a great advocacy organization with lots of food for thought…

  18. Playing science laboratory in the kitchen and watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and Magic School Bus over and over was enjoyed by both daughter and son. No Barbie’s, none, not one ever entered the house. I’m also proud of my bright assertive 14 year old daughter who’s very good in math, an accomplished musician and fearless on a horse. She dresses to the local fashion which is very much REI northwest casual. Dad is equally anxious when she’s jumping over things on a horse or wearing a figure fitting dress. And I’ve got my gun cleaning supplies all ready for the first date. ;)

  19. And I’ve got my gun cleaning supplies all ready for the first date. ;)

    Lots of Bill Nye and the MSB in our house too. I wonder if it’s a cause or an effect? We lost the battle of Barbie, though, but it never really got solid hooks in her brain.

    Life is different in Canada, however, where gun ownership is tightly controlled. Fortunately, a well sharpened shovel is appropriate for all phases of the operation – threat display, action and disposal.

  20. aiabx: “Fortunately, a well sharpened shovel is appropriate for all phases of the operation – threat display, action and disposal”

    Your shovel (multi-tasking-tool) remark made me think of a little movie called “Blood Simple” you gotta see. Cant you have shotguns or hunting rifles in the great white north??

    We had a Bill Nye inspired party trick with our son when he was about three when company came over. We’d ask him what the three phases of matter are, and he’d get a serious look on his face and say, “liquid, solid and gas of course”.

  21. Yeah.. for some reason a lot of guys talk about gun cleaning and people dating their daughters, but pretty much no one actually does, and even if they do, it doesn’t remotely have the effect you seem to think it would. It’s a rare father to actually frighten off boys, and if you have what it takes to do it consistently, you’ll likely wind up locked away one way or another sooner or later.

    Besides, I thought we were against the whole repression thing around here, generally…

  22. Writing about doing violence to young people in the context of dating is not something I find humorous.

    I’m glad your sense of humour is more enlightened than mine. It gives me hope for the progress of the human race. But I can assure than 9 out of 10 fathers of adolescent girls joke in this way, and that the jokes come with an undercurrent of real concern.
    Because we were all teenage boys ourselves once, and I won’t speak for James Fox, but I can tell you I knew more than one person who was admired for his way with girls who would be called a date-rapist today.
    When my daughter is mature enough to make responsible choices about sex, then I will turn a blind eye and not ask why her boy/girlfriends car always breaks down, or why the number on the call display doesn’t match her alibi, and let her get on with her life. But until she is mature enough, I would be an irresponsible parent indeed if I didn’t keep an eye out for her and do my best to keep her safe.

    I don’t really have a sharpened shovel, or a gun, though I’m told I have a scary scowl.

    Besides, I thought we were against the whole repression thing around here, generally…

    All that good, healthy, maturing teenage rebellion doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have some repression to push against. What’s the point of breaking free from your parents if your parents are your source of weed and condoms?

  23. LoL… fair enough on that last point. I just worry because of how often I see seriously oppressive parents messing up their kids. I guess I tend to overreact a touch.

  24. Hey deadalus2u
    Only humor…, life affirming, essential and necessary parental humor. My professional life has been specifically involved with abused and maltreated children and adults for over twenty-five years. So I’m taking the situational high ground on this one.

    And aiabx
    As for provisioning my children I’d be more than happy to provide condoms. I’ll pass on the weed, but I’ve never been a puritan about alcohol (in my home with my kids) as I think that leads to other problems down the road.

  25. As for provisioning my children I’d be more than happy to provide condoms.

    Your kids will enjoy themselves more if they sneak the condoms from the box in your sock drawer that is mysteriously always full :-)

  26. In desparation trying to find some books for my daughters that don’t involve fairies, princesses, or princess fairies, I’ve been considering writing something for them myself. Ramona the Pest a few years on with a touch of the Great Brain or Encyclopedia Brown or Danny Dunn, Boy Scientist. Anyone care to bat around ideas? The pre-teen daughter of a magician travelling the world and debunking the bs while her father performs and her mom manages the show?

    Or does anyone have any suggestions of books that don’t lead down the path of diadems and fairy wings?

  27. I’m a fan of good story telling regardless of the presence of magic or fairies. I asked a similar question over at JREF forums and got a lot go food responses. As this is in the member section you may not have access. It’s a great organization and it may be a good reason to join… .

    Another option that was passed on to me is here, , where you put down books you like and other recommendations pop up.

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