Christine Reuter Starr, at right, covering a school story for a newspaper internship in 2009; at left, examples of the "sexy" and "non-sexy" doll illustrations shown to girls in the study.
Research conducted at Knox College, which began as a senior psychology project by Christine Reuter Starr '10, is gaining national and international attention as the first study to show that girls as young as six identify themselves as sex objects.
Starr, who now works as a medical research assistant, and her faculty advisor, professor Gail Ferguson, co-authored the report, published in the journal Sex Roles. Starr interviewed 60 girls between ages six and nine, showing them pictures of two dolls, one doll dressed in "sexy" clothes, and the other doll wearing modest but still trendy clothes. More than two-thirds of the girls -- 68 percent -- said they wanted to look like the "sexy" doll, and nearly three-fourths -- 72 percent -- said the sexy doll would be more popular.
We asked Starr about the research:
How did the project originate?
The study was my senior research project, and Professor Gail Ferguson was my project mentor. I had been interested in the popularity of "sexy" dolls in retail stores, such as Bratz dolls. I was curious whether young girls actually preferred them and if that preference had any real meaning -- did girls actually admire and want to look like such a doll? The idea clicked when I read a study by Professor Ferguson, where she used dolls to investigate racial and body size preferences and identification among Jamaican and American children. I thought, why not do something similar with sexualized preference among young girls?
Professor Gail Ferguson talks about Christine Reuter Starr, as a student and research colleague.
How was Christy as a professional colleague?
Christy was a hard-working and dedicated collaborator who participated in all aspects of the publication and revision process, which can be protracted and arduous, especially for first-timers. She has a particular strength in literature reviews and it was nice to have confidence in this particular skill before we began to prepare the manuscript for publication. She was flexible and positive - there were points when she or I needed more time to get our parts done, and she took this all in stride.
How did the project help Christy grow, as a working professional in psychology?
It is often difficult to recruit families to do this sort of research. We needed to present the study in a way that was clear and ethical, but not off-putting, as sexualization is not an easy thing to study in girls, let alone young girls. However, Christy was persistent, patient, and teachable. She took the advice to not put all her eggs in one basket as far as recruitment goes, and we worked closely together on wording and the public image of the study. This strategy paid off in the end, and she is much the better for it as a young developmental researcher.
Did you come across anything in the research that reminded you of your own youth, playing with dolls and dressing them?
I do remember playing with dolls- amusingly enough, I often dressed them in "sexualized" outfits, and recall my friends doing so as well. I don't think I understood that there might be any meaning or significance behind sexualized preference at that age; like many of the girls in the study I imagine I was simply copying what I saw in the outside world.
What do you see as the major social problem that your research identifies, and what could be done about it?
First, there is a lot of sexualized media out there, which does influence young girls in combination with other factors. I don't think censorship is the correct avenue -- after all, our study did not find that simple restriction was useful in reducing the odds of sexualization. However, I do think it would help to see media which portrays girls and women in more diverse roles-too often, women in media are reduced to being the "sexy love interest" of male leads. I'm not against women in the media being sexy, but I am against that being their primary role. Greater room for independent media and media directed and written by women may be a good avenue to achieve this -- or simply, more public demand for a diversity of women in media.
Second, many mothers in the study objectified themselves, and other studies have found that self-objectification among women is quite prevalent. As long as society and grown women place looking good for others above other traits a woman might have, young girls will model such beliefs and behaviors themselves.
How have Knox faculty helped your research?
Professor Ferguson was instrumental in the project at every step of the way. She provided the support and encouragement I needed while letting me develop my own independence and creativity. As a new researcher, I had a lot of enthusiasm and ideas but did not always know the right direction to go when things got complicated. Dr. Ferguson was always there to answer my questions and encourage me when I felt unsure of the next step to take. There are countless examples, from her assisting me in gaining permission to go into grade schools and developing age appropriate questions for the girls, to her help in interpreting our results and getting our paper ready for publication. We have grown close throughout developing and conducting our research, writing the paper, and preparing for publication, and she continues to be my closest mentor.
I was also particularly influenced by both the academic and activist work of Professor Tim Kasser. His work against the consumerism of children helped develop my view that although media is a part of modern life, we should work to minimize any ill effects and allow kids to develop independently. His belief that work should be purposeful, and not simply to attain a paycheck to buy more things, also has helped influence the line of work I have chosen. His philosophy and activism in the "Take Back Your Time" movement has helped make sure I don't over work myself!
You have a minor in anthropology-sociology. How does your psychology research engage your other interests?
Media is a big part of our culture, and I think early sexualization expands beyond the personal and into the collective society. I took a course on Globalism and East Asia, and although it's not directly linked to my research it helped me understand the ubiquity of media and how influential it is in the process of globalization. I would love to look at self-sexualization trends among young girls in other countries! Although I only took a few gender and women's studies courses while at Knox, I also believe my research incorporates a lot of ideas and theories present in those classes, such as objectification.
What other classes or activities at Knox did you most enjoy?
I loved Reading Buddies, as well as other volunteer activities I participated in with children. I also wrote several articles and a regular sex column in The Knox Student. I was a participant in many psychology studies, conducted by both professors and students at Knox. Some were quite interesting, and my participation helped me prepare for my own research (as well as gave me plenty of extra credit in psych 100!) I also conducted research with several other students in Frank McAndrew's Evolutionary Psychology class about gender and mate preference.
How did Knox encourage your research?
I had to print lots of color copies of the doll illustrations, and I received a Richter grant for that expense. Knox was instrumental in my research. I can't imagine having received so much support at many other colleges and universities. People unfamiliar with Knox College are always surprised to find out my research project didn't come out of a special honors course available to only a few students, but rather a course which is required for all psychology majors in order to graduate. I additionally received a ton of support not only from my project mentor, Gail, but from the other psychology professors. By expecting a lot out of their students while giving them the support they need, Knox College helps drive students to success.
How did your experiences at Knox help prepare you for what you're doing now?
I'm currently a Traumatic Brain Injury research assistant at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, working for several professors at Northwestern University. Knox prepared me tremendously for this position. The writing skills I developed when writing my senior research project and other large scale papers helped me to later co-author several papers at my workplace. The statistical skills I gained when analyzing data at Knox helped me to analyze data from the medical studies we conduct. These are skills that I would not have developed nearly as fluidly at a larger or less academically challenging undergraduate institution. Additionally, I think the Knox community and Knox psychology courses taught me to be conscientious in my career and respectful of diverse ideas and groups of people.
I can't stress enough how glad I am I went to Knox!
Media Coverage: The Starr and Ferguson study was published in Sex Roles, and reported by media worldwide, including MSNBC, LivesScience, Huffington Post, Fox News, Toronto Globe and Mail, WBBM-Chicago, The Christian Post, and Times of India.