UT study finds middle school girls with sexualized body image perform lower academically

Nidia Cavazos

Middle school girls who value a sexualized body image tend to have a lower academic performance than their peers, according to research published in the The Journal of Research on Adolescence.

In the study — conducted by psychology professor Rebecca Bigler and Sarah McKenney, a former psychology graduate student — middle school girls were asked to film a mock newscast. Their preparation manners were observed based on their internalized sexualization, or internalization of the belief that it is important to be sexually attractive.

According to the study, the girls who had a higher level of internalized sexualization spent more time with makeup, and the girls who had a lower level of internalized sexualization spent most of their time practicing their script.

According to Bigler, the reason behind these girls spending more time on makeup was because of the internalized belief that they must be attractive to men and therefore focus less on academics. Bigler said gender roles play a large part in this, as roles are often defined at an early age.

“Being hot and sexy has taken over the girl role,” Bigler said. “To be girl means try to be sexually attractive to men. They internalize it, and the study on academics shows they then perform lower in academics.”

Psychology junior Volonda Jackson said she believes young girls are performing at a lower level academically because of gender roles and stereotypes.

“I think it goes into their perception of gender roles in society, that girls with makeup do less because they’re reminded that they are girls, and there is a stereotype that they don’t tend to perform well,” Jackson said.

In a second study conducted by Bigler and McKenney, scores on an internalized sexualization scale were used to predict the degree to which girls wore tight and revealing clothes. The girls whose scores were higher on an internalized sexualization scale tended to show higher rates of body shame than their peers. It was concluded that girls are more likely to be disappointed in the comparison of their own bodies if they value and imitate the sexual image of models.

Bigler said the media, along with gender roles, contribute to young girls internalizing a need for sexual attractiveness.

“Media reflects a sexualized and sexist culture that women are limited in the roles that they can have,” Bigler said.  “Girls see that a way to have money, status and power is to be sexually attractive to men.”

Lauren Canton, student president of the GirlAdvocates! program and neurobiology and nutrition senior, said she has been working with girls in this age group. She said that because they are in a stage where they are concerned with their identity, they often rely on the media for role models.

“We have a mentoring program, and, as we work with this age group, I can say the study was spot on in recognizing that sexual images have a predominant role in forming their opinion in how they should be,” Canton said. “I’ve noticed that, within that age group, focus is on trying to figure out who you are, and you’re looking to the world for role models. Role models in the media are valued for their beauty ideals, and it is not necessarily positive ones.”