Study: Pressure for Girls to Be ‘Sexy’ Harms Academics

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Girls who are greatly affected by societal pressures to be sexy do not perform as well academically as girls who do not internalize these pressures, according to recent studies.

Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology, and Sarah McKenny, a former psychology graduate student, conducted a study which found that girls ages 10-15 that scored higher on the Internalized Sexualization Scale (ISS)  – meaning they believe that it is important to be sexually attractive – scored lower on standardized tests and earned lower grades than their peers in three core subjects, writes David Ochsner for Medical Xpress.

“Those girls who believe that being sexually attractive to males is important appear to invest more of their time and effort in that domain,” Bigler says. “Because everyone’s resources are limited, the investment in sexiness comes at the expense of other domains, including academics.”

Bigler and Mckenny also conducted a study with 91 girls ages 11 to 15 who were told they were helping with a study about journalism. They were instructed to deliver a mock newscast that would be recorded, writes Stacy Teicher Khadaroo for The Christian Science Monitor.

The girls were left in a room to get ready to be filmed. They were informed that they were allowed to use anything in the room in order to prepare. The room included the 433-word transcript and an assortment of beauty products. What the girls did not know at the time is that they were being filmed. The girls and their parents were later told and given the option to drop out of the study; several girls opted to do so.

Girls who scored higher on the ISS survey spent more time putting on makeup than practicing the transcript.  This did not affect the amount of mistakes they made during the newscast. Bigler suggests that the transcript was not complicated enough to require much practice.

While girls are bombarded with media images daily that put pressure on them to look a certain way physically, these pressures are heightened with events such as Halloween – a struggle familiar to parents concerned with their adolescent girls choosing appropriate costumes.

While girls wanting to wear skimpy costumes may seem harmless, these studies suggest that putting too much focus on appearance can lead to a decline in academic performance.

At 10- to 12-years old, “caring about makeup won’t suddenly completely undermine your academic behavior,” Bigler says, but “what could happen is this loop: Even if you only underperform a little, you start to get this message that maybe this area isn’t my strength compared to other girls, and so I should concentrate on, for example, interpersonal relationships rather than work competence.”