Dissertation Grant Winners

Conceptualizing, measuring, and testing the consequences of internalized sexualization among adolescent girls

As media, clothing and products aimed at children in the U.S. become increasingly “sexualized,” research seeks to better understand the consequences of such issues

By Sarah McKenney

Media, clothing, and products aimed at children in the United States are becoming increasingly “sexualized” (e.g., Durham, 2008; Levin & Kilbourne, 2008; Orenstein, 2011). For example, analyses of cartoons marketed toward children demonstrated that female characters often wear form-fitting clothing that shows off their small waists and large breasts (Lacroix, 2004; Lamb & Brown, 2006); thong underwear featuring phrases such as “wink wink” and “eye candy” are marketed to pre-adolescent girls (Merskin, 2004, p. 119); and Monster High dolls are outfitted with miniskirts, high heels, and copious makeup (Orenstein, 2011).

Some sociological evidence suggests that the sexualization of popular culture is affecting girls’ behavior. Rates of breast augmentation among girls under 18 have skyrocketed in recent years (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2006). Additionally, surveys suggest that between 4 percent and 10 percent of 12- to 17- year-olds have sent nude or nearly nude pictures of themselves via text message or the internet (A.P., M.T.V., 2009), a serious concern given the potentially grave legal consequences of such actions.

The APA deemed this topic important enough to necessitate the formation of a task force to study the issue. According to the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, sexualization occurs when:

  1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, 

  2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy, 

  3. A person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, 

  4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person (APA Task Force, 2007, p. 2).

In addition to defining sexualization, the APA Task Force (2007) documented the prevalence of sexually objectifying portrayals of girls and women in the media– and called for developmental psychologists to document the existence and examine the consequences of internalized sexualization. In my own work, I have sought to fulfill this mandate.

My overarching research interest lies at the intersection of youth’s gender role and sexual development. As a graduate student, I have studied the developmental origins and consequences of internalized sexualization, or personal endorsement of the belief that sexual attractiveness is an important aspect of one’s identity. Working with my graduate mentor, Dr. Rebecca Bigler, I have sought to: (1) develop a broad integrative theoretical framework for making predictions about the phenomenon, (2) create and validate a scale that measures internalized sexualization among girls, and (3) identify the correlates and consequences of internalized sexualization among pre- and early adolescent girls.

Theorizing about the Causes and Consequences of Internalized Sexualization

The majority of the extant work reviewed by the APA Task Force (2007) is grounded within social psychology and conducted with late adolescent and early adult participants. As a first step in extending our understanding of internalized sexualization among children and adolescents, I created a theoretically grounded developmental model of the causes and consequences of the belief that being sexually attractive to males is an important aspect of one’s identity (McKenney & Bigler, 2011). The model integrates social psychological and developmental perspectives on gender socialization and identity. The model outlines several exogenous and endogenous factors that are likely to be associated with elevated risk for developing internalized sexualization. In addition, the model posits several psychological and behavioral consequences of internalized sexualization.

Measuring Internalized Sexualization

As noted above, extant research on sexualization has been conducted largely with college-aged women. Research on internalized sexualization among youth has been hindered by the lack of a measure of the construct. Therefore, I sought to develop a valid and reliable measure of internalized sexualization for use with pre- and early adolescent girls. The resulting measure, the Internalized Sexualization Scale, shows sound psychometric properties, (e.g., internal and testretest reliability, construct validity; McKenney & Bigler, 2010a). Using this measure in both crosssectional and longitudinal studies with racially diverse participants, I have found that girls as young as 10 show evidence of having developed sexualized identities, and that levels of internalized sexualization increase across the adolescent years.

Correlates and Causes of Internalized Sexualization

After having developed a theoretical model and measure of internalized sexualization, I began to test the model empirically. In three studies that included adolescent girls from diverse racial backgrounds, I examined hypothesized correlates of internalized sexualization. The results indicated that girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization were more likely to (1) dress in a sexualized manner, (2) report body surveillance, (3) experience body shame, (4) express femininity, (5) prefer feminine roles, (6) endorse gender stereotypes, and (7) obtain low grades and standardized test scores than girls with lower levels of internalized sexualization (McKenney & Bigler, 2010a, 2010b).

Due to the correlational nature of this research, the mechanisms that produce these relations are unclear. I thus conducted a behavioral study aimed at examining one possible mechanism underlying the relation between internalized sexualization and low academic success (McKenney & Bigler, 2011). In this study, 11- to 15-year-old girls completed a newscast (a proxy for an academic task). To prepare for the newscast, girls spent five minutes in a room containing the challenging newscast transcript and beauty products. Their preparation was videotaped. Girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization spent more time applying makeup, and less time reviewing the transcript, than girls with lower levels of internalized sexualization. The results suggest that internalized sexualization may cause low academic success via the greater investment of time and resources into sexualized appearance than academic performance.

Dissertation Research

My dissertation examined longitudinal relations between internalized sexualization and its hypothesized correlates across the middle school years. Girls in the study completed measures twice a year for a total of four waves of data. At each time point, girls completed measures of: (1) internalized sexualization, (2) body surveillance, (3) body shame, (4) body satisfaction, (5) self-worth, (6) physical perceived self-competence, (7) social perceived self-competence, (8) cognitive perceived selfcompetence, and (9) sociometric popularity. Information about girls’ pubertal status and grade point average (GPA) was also obtained. Boys were recruited as well to complete measures of their female peers’ sociometric popularity.

Across time points, higher levels of internalized sexualization were associated with higher levels of body surveillance, body shame, and pubertal development, and lower levels of body satisfaction, self-worth, and cognitive perceived self-competence. Structural equation models suggested that increases in pubertal status temporally preceded increases in internalized sexualization, and increases in internalized sexualization temporally preceded decreases in self-worth, cognitive perceived selfcompetence, and academic achievement. Because the findings are correlational, no causal inferences can be drawn. However, they do suggest that internalized sexualization is associated with negative outcomes over time.


In summary, my research program on the sexualization of girls and women in American culture has sought to identify risk factors associated with the internalization of a sexualized view of girls and women, as well as behavioral (e.g., sexualized clothing use), psychological (e.g., low self-worth), and academic (e.g., low grades and standardized test scores) outcomes associated with the internalization of such beliefs. I hope that this work inspires future research and informs public policy aimed at reducing sexualized beliefs among girls and boys.


American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html.

American Society of Plastic Surgeons. (2006). 2005 cosmetic surgery age distributions 18 or younger. Retrieved from http://www.plasticsurgery.org/d.xml?comp=x3094

A.P., M.T.V. Poll, September 11-25, 2009. Poll questions retrieved from http://surveys.ap.org/data/KnowledgeNetworks/AP_Digital_Abuse_Topline_092209.pdf

Durham, M. G. (2008). The Lolita effect: The media sexualization of young girls and what we can do about it. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

Lacroix, C. (2004). Images of animated others: The orientalization of Disney’s cartoon heroines from The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Popular Communication, 2, 213-229.

Lamb, S., & Brown, L. M. (2006). Packaging girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers’ schemes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Levin, D. E., & Kilbourne, J. (2008). So sexy so soon: The new sexualized childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids. New York, NY: Random House.

McKenney, S. J. & Bigler, R. S. (2010a, March). Development of the Internalized Sexualization Scale (ISS) for preand early adolescent girls. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Philadelphia, PA.

McKenney, S. J., & Bigler, R. S. (2010b, April). Relations among indices of internalized sexualization and academic achievement during early adolescence. Poster presented at the Gender Development Research Conference, San Francisco, CA.

McKenney, S. J. & Bigler, R. S. (2011, April). Conceptualizing and testing the consequences of internalized sexualization for girls' developmental outcomes during adolescence. In L. M. Ward (Chair), Becoming sexualized: Causes and consequences among diverse youth. Symposium conducted at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Montreal, QC.

Merskin, D. (2004). Reviving Lolita? A media literacy examination of sexual portrayals of girls in fashion advertising. American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 119-129.

Orenstein, P. (2011). Cinderella ate my daughter: Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Sulik, M. J., Eisenberg, N., Lemery-Chalfant, K., Spinrad, T. L., Silva, K. M., Eggum, N. D., Betkowski, J., Kupfer, A., Smith, C., Gaertner, B., Stover, D. A., & Verrelli, B. C. (2012). Interactions between serotonin transporter gene haplotypes and quality of mothers’ parenting predict the development of children’s noncompliance. Developmental Psychology, 48, 740-754. doi:10.1037/a0025938