“Will You Still Love Me When I’m No Longer Young and Beautiful?”

California Girls, Part III


Photo: Brandi Eszlinger/flickr

As a developmental psychologist who studies gender, I often ask parents about how frequently they play with gender-typed toys. The sad thing is, apart from a few toys like dolls and tea sets, a stereotypically feminine toy in early childhood (the preschool and kindergarten years) often revolves around appearance and adornment. For example, common toys for girls include:

  • Dress-up clothes (i.e., princesses, brides, and fairies)
  • Toy hair salon tools and make-up sets
  • Nail polish
  • Crafts that emphasize adornment (e.g., jewelry-making)
  • Sticker dress-up doll books with clothing items for every occasion (ballet practice, beach outing, you name it) and an unfathomable amount of possible combinations
  • Dress-up mix and match dolls with different outfits
  • Books that emphasize appearance (e.g., Fancy Nancy – the fancier the outfit, the better)

Don’t get me wrong. I think fashion is fun and can be creative and has its place. It’s just that there is such an imbalance, where so many toys emphasize the external appearance of girls and do not emphasize other important aspects of self-development.

The toy industry emphasizes this much more for girls than for boys. This became evident to me when I was recently creating an experiment on how a preoccupation with appearance develops in young children. For the experiment’s outcome, I wanted to see what toys children would “buy” with fake money when they’re playing “store” – appearance-related toys or neutral toys. It was basically impossible to find any masculine toys that would remotely appeal to boys that had to do with dress, appearance, or grooming. It was incredibly easy to find appearance-related feminine toys.

Preschool and kindergarten is the time when children are beginning to form gender identities, so children tend to be extra curious about what gender means during this developmental period. They are also usually quite motivated to learn the “rules of gender” and rigid in following these rules. Thus, many young girls do frequently play with these feminine-typed appearance-related toys. I speculate that this play with appearance-related toys likely reflects how much young girls already care about their appearances. Continual play with these appearance-related toys may also contribute to further fostering a preoccupation with appearance. Psychological research supports the notion that this concern is developing at quite a young age. In one study, researchers asked 3- to 10-year-olds, “Tell me what you know about girls/boys? Tell me about girls/boys. Describe them.” Children tended to associate boys with activities, such as playing video games and sports. When thinking about girls, children mentioned appearance themes, like, they have long hair, they wear dresses and jewelry, and they are concerned with appearance. Several researchers have come to the conclusion that young children often start out believing gender stereotypes such that boys are what they do and girls are what they look like (also see here).

My own study looked more directly at whether young girls are concerned with their appearance. We interviewed 35 3- to 5-year-old girls and asked them, “Is it important to you to be pretty? (If yes) How important, a little or a lot?” About 69% of the girls that we asked said that it was “a lot” important to be pretty, the highest end of our scale. The disturbing part was that variability was quite low – only 20% said, no, it’s not important, and 9% said that it’s only a little important to be pretty.*

We also asked the children a follow-up question if they answered “Yes” to “Is it important to you to be pretty?” We asked, “Why is it important to be pretty?” Some of these young girls already showed awareness of the social nature of prettiness and the social norms around prettiness for girls. They said things like “Because other people won’t say, ‘You don’t look nice’”, “need to be nice and pretty” and “because you have to.” They also responded with, “So they know your name” and “Show others to be pretty.” Others simply expressed their enjoyment of looking pretty – “because I feel fancy”, “fun to be fancy,” and “I like to be a princess.” A good number of girls knew it was important, but they were not yet sure why, or, they might have had a hard time articulating this knowledge. These girls were quite young, after all, and still developing their language skills.

These kinds of responses trouble me. These girls are just learning how to be girls and what it means, and this is what they are learning? Others I have talked to have noticed similar disturbing trends. My lab conducts studies at local childcare centers with 3- to 6-year-olds. When I was talking to the director about my project, the director told me that whenever she would visit the childcare sites, the young girls would tell her that they liked her shoes or some other piece of clothing. If this director wore a new skirt, some of the young girls would actually notice and ask if that was a new skirt. These are 3- to 6-year-olds talking appearance shop with a woman several decades beyond them. When I visited the childcare site myself, I actually saw a 4- or 5-year-old girl look me over from head to toe to check out my outfit. Yikes! I hate seeing this “checking out” behavior in adult women, but I didn’t expect to be checked out by a 5-year-old.

From where are children learning that girls are what they look like? That to be feminine, one needs to care about one’s appearance and look pretty? Being bought and playing with toys that focus on appearance may play a role, although this has not been empirically supported yet. We also likely model this behavior for them – both through the media (see also here) and through our own examples. In terms of media, in my own work, I am particularly interested in the impact of Disney fairytale princesses, a $4 billion dollar franchise, with widespread global influence. The older films especially emphasize that heroines are beautiful and that beauty is valued. Beauty gets you the prince and the happily-ever-after. Disney isn’t shy about it, the heroines are named “Belle” and Sleeping “Beauty.” Snow White was the Fairest One of All. Although the newer films try to emphasize other aspects of heroines, such as resourcefulness and being caring, the heroines are still unrealistically drop-dead gorgeous.

But Disney is not the only culprit. We are too. I struggle with this too, as an aunt. At the same time that I try to not buy my nieces appearance-related toys, I model my own concern about appearance. When I visit them, they see me apply my make-up in the morning – so many interesting creams and powders and colors! We go shopping together, and they see my sister and I spend time deciding on what clothes to buy. They see us wear heels that aren’t good for our backs or our feet. As much as I wish to be liberated of beauty concerns and not care about what anyone thinks about my appearance, I’m far from there still. (I do have fantasies about one day becoming one of those eccentric professors with white hair, flowy loose clothes and comfortable walking shoes). Jennifer Weiner wrote a nice piece on her own personal struggle with caring about her looks, but wanting her daughters to care about inner and not external beauty. Research has found, perhaps not surprisingly, that mothers’ personal dissatisfaction with appearance (in this case with weight and body) predicts adolescent girls’ disordered eating behaviors. This suggests that the example that we set does matter.

My sense is that as soon as girls learn that they are girls, they are learning that being a girl means that they need to be pretty. I think it’s sad that that’s what “girlhood” is equated with at such a young age and at such a formative developmental period. We don’t yet have evidence that this early appearance concern fostered in preschool and kindergarten is sustained through adolescence or adulthood. If it is, though, there is much evidence (mentioned in Part II of this series) that high appearance concerns in adolescence and young adulthood is associated with a whole plethora of negative outcomes. So it’s hard for me to watch young girls playing with appearance-related toys and adoring these unreal beautiful heroines and to not also imagine what could be in store for them later in life. Let’s not define young girls and ourselves by what we look like, but by what we do.


*These data are preliminary and have not yet been published or peer-reviewed. We are still collecting more responses, but I imagine the trend will remain the same even when we add more children into the study.


“Cause I’m Young, and I’m Hip, So Beautiful, I’m Gonna’ Be – a Supermodel”

California Girls, Part II

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In Part I of this blog post series I shared my personal experience growing up in Southern California’s appearance culture. I’m glad to say that I am now pretty happy with the way that I look. It’s helpful that I have an amazing partner who always makes me feel attractive with his sidelong glances and his sweet compliments (he’s a keeper!). But long before I met him, I somehow got past many of the insecurities of my California youth.

Yet there are still regrets. I realized I had spent 10 years, from age 11 to 21, weighing myself in the morning every single day. What I regret the most is all that brain space that was taken up with caring so much about my looks – all of that mental energy wasted. Being thin and beautiful really preoccupied me. Anyone who has ever tried dieting can attest to this. Meal and snack times are daily occurrences. Compounding the problem, adolescence is a time when teens are already obsessed with checking each other out and are hyper aware of what their peers think. I wonder if I hadn’t been thinking about being beautiful for all of that time, maybe I could have been thinking about other, more useful and positive things. I could have been cooking up wild ideas. Or, I could have just been thinking about nothing, which would have done my psyche less harm.

Kooky social psychology studies show the danger of spending too much cognitive energy on one’s appearance. One study had women try on a bathing suit and then take a math test. Yes, you read that correctly. These women performed worse on a math test compared to women who tried on a sweater before taking a math test. The researchers speculated that objectifying their own bodies took up working memory that was needed to perform well on the test.

Despite these findings and despite being happy with the way that I look, I admit, it’s still hard to stop the pursuit of beauty from taking up brain space. It’s still hard to be immune to an appearance culture and to resist placing one’s self-worth on how one looks. It’s something that I’ll probably continue to struggle with and find frustrating. When I’m reading women’s magazines, which are usually focused about beautifying oneself, I think, what if I spent this time reading Kiplinger’s Personal Finance or Money magazine? I think, I should really pick up that latest issue of The Economist. I’m aware of the latest laser technologies out there to make me look younger. What if I knew the latest mutual funds with the best returns? Social media has given us so many avenues to satisfy the craving of how to look our best – Instagram, beauty and fashion blogs, YouTube makeup tutorials. Imagine if all that time spent learning about how to look better was used on something else more lasting and edifying.

Beyond taking up brain space, a high preoccupation with appearance is linked with a long list of other negative outcomes. Studies have shown that appearance preoccupation is linked to lower achievement and motivation in math and science, lower general intrinsic (self-propelled) motivation, lower self-efficacy (feeling like you can affect change and are capable), reduced self-control and lower self-esteem. Other studies find that making one’s self-worth contingent on how one looks is associated with psychological distressalcohol and drug use, sexual assault victimization, and even major depression. One in five women experience an episode of major depressive disorder at some point in their lives, and depression is also about twice as common in women than in men. Psychologists have shown that a high focus on and dissatisfaction with physical appearance contributes to the high rates of depression in women. 

Clearly, fostering a high level of concern about physical appearance so that one’s sense of self-worth depends on how one looks is unhealthy and harmful. What’s troubling to me is that in the face of this research, appearance culture persists and seems to start to evolve in very young children. A few studies have found that as young as in preschool, many children report being concerned with their weight. Half of preschool-aged girls surveyed in one study said they worried about being fat or wished to be thinner. These concerns with thinness become even more common in elementary school. Because of my own struggles with caring about my appearance (see Part I in last week’s post), it’s hard to watch the same standards and values being pushed onto the next generation. More to come on young children and appearance preoccupation in the next post.


California, Here We Come, Right Back Where We Started From

California Girls, Part I

California girls 002bI’m a California girl. Southern Californian, to be exact. The Northern Californians would likely enforce that distinction. I was born abroad, but from age 5 to 18, this was where I grew up. Later I spent my college and post-college years in the Bay Area and in New York and often dreamt about California’s gentle winds and the soft sun. Now I’m back teaching as a professor in Southern California near my family again.

California will do a lot of things to you. It makes you intolerant of any kind of weather fluctuation. When the temperature drops to the 60s, the beanies and boots come out. If it’s overcast for more than a day we get moody and wonder whether the sun will ever shine again.

I believe that California culture also socializes its citizens, and especially its female citizens, to focus on their bodies and their appearance. California girls have a reputation, after all, and many songwriters have selected them as muses. Who can forget the Beach Boys’ crooning?


“I been all around this great big world

And I’ve seen all kinds of giiiirls.

Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States

Back to the cutest girls in the word.

…I wish they all could be California giiiirls”


And more recently, Katy Perry’s exhortation:

“You could travel the wo-orld

But nothing comes close to the Golden Coaast

Once you party with us, you’ll be falling in love, oh-ohhh

 California girls, we’re unforgettable

Daisy dukes, bikinis on top

Sun-kissed skin, so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle, oh-ohhh

California gurls, we’re undeniable

Fine, fresh, fierce, we got in on lock

West Coast represent, now put your hands up, oh-ohhh”

I have to admit, when these songs come onto the radio, I can’t help but groove to the beat. And every girl that grew up in California has memorized the Beach Boys’ lyrics. I know I have. It was the anthem for my high school volleyball team, the cassette playing every time we jumped into a van on the way to a game. What are California girls supposed to be proud of? Our cuteness, our hotness, our fine-ness of course.

A little digging revealed that the advent of film and Hollywood in the 1920s contributed to the emergence of a “physical culture” in Southern California. Success in Hollywood depended on looking good. In the warm weather and on the screen bodies became more exposed, and these displays of the body became more acceptable. Celebrity actresses and actors became objects of fascination, as if they were their own solar systems around which the public’s conversations and obsessions orbited. The scholar, Heather Addison, reports that these stars served as the ideal, defining standards of beauty in face and figure. They allowed audiences to see fantasies come to life with their glamorous lifestyles. These stars also served as examples of success to young men and women.

Along with the rise of consumerism, the 1930s continued this trend of improving and focusing on one’s appearance. At this time the Saturday Evening Post called this shift, “Dame Fashion” and poignantly wrote:

“Partly because Dame Fashion is like that, never satisfied with anything about us ‘as is’;   always trying to change something – our figures, our height, our complexions, our feet, our hair – just so as to give us a different look at least four times a year and make all our costumes passé long before they are half worn out. ‘Whatever is, is wrong’ seems her motto.”

One hundred years later, this persistent dissatisfaction and focus on appearance continues. One hundred years later, we still see this “star discourse” alive and well. Even my 69-year-old father knows who Kim Kardashian is, thanks to Extra! coming on right after the evening news. Hollywood’s values seep into the veins of Southern California’s culture.

*          *          *

Students often ask me, why did you go into psychology? Spending my girlhood in California played a large role in my interest in psychology and in gender development. Growing up here, I felt that I absorbed that ever-present value on physical appearance and beauty. It was impossible to ignore.

From a young age, I thought a lot about my appearance. I remember being eight years old and loving it when my older sister would curl my hair for me on days when we got home from school early. We would cram a chair into our small bathroom at home, and I would patiently sit while she worked her magic. One of my favorite activities growing up was raiding my mother’s make-up drawer. I was thrilled when she let me keep lipstick tubes in bright pink colors, leftover from the Clinique free gifts that she collected from Macy’s.

This preoccupation with my appearance worsened in adolescence. The first time I remember being concerned with my diet was in sixth grade. I’m sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant well, but when I learned about the food pyramid, I became obsessed with counting how many servings of what I ate each day. In seventh grade, I started running laps at the park after school to lose the weight I was starting to gain with puberty. There would be days when I tried not to eat anything. I distinctly recall one particular day where I was achieving success in fasting. I even got through basketball practice after school, dizzy with hunger, turning a deaf ear to the yelling from our red-faced coach. As soon as practice ended, however, I raced home and ate whatever I could find.

In high school, this preoccupation with looking pretty and thin worsened as my desire to be popular and attractive to boys increased. My ethnic identity also became more salient to me. I compared myself to other Asian girls and female celebrities, who seemed to have no muscle or fat at all.

When I quit volleyball after sophomore year, I gained a few pounds. The obsession with being thin and pretty continued. I wanted to be perfect in every sense of the word. This persistent dissatisfaction with my appearance contributed to the depression that I started to experience. I remember thinking every single day that I wanted to kill myself, which I later learned is called suicidal ideation.

At this point, a reader might safely assume, with all this obsession over looking pretty and thin, that I was a heifer of a kid. But this is the truly crazy thing, and this is why I think SoCal culture is insidious – when I was 12 and running those laps to lose my puberty weight? I was 104 pounds at 5’ 5”. When I look back at my photos, I shake my head at the lunacy. I was a growing, beautiful girl.

Two realizations shaped my perspective on my personal history. First, there was such a vast discrepancy between my actual appearance and my self-perceived appearance. When I was growing up, my perceptions of my appearance were mangled and distorted. Second, many others went through the same experience. As I was writing this, I struggled with trying to make this entry zippy and interesting. I didn’t want my story to sound cliché. But think about that – why is it a cliché? Isn’t it sad that we’ve heard the eating disorder-depression-teenager story so often that it makes us bored? The prevalence of eating disorders is increasing. Body image issues are also affecting boys and young men and increasingly so. Physical appearance, in general, is the topic of conversation among many young girls. These realizations showed me that a force greater than myself made it likely for this preoccupation with appearance and its negative consequences to unfold during my development. My unhappiness was not just due to me being me, but largely due to a bigger, broader macro culture (a la Bronfenbrenner, for you developmental psychologists). In large part, I went through that awful experience simply because I was a girl. And more than that – I was a girl who grew up in Southern California.

Being beautiful is of paramount importance for a woman, not just in Southern California, but across most cultures. There’s a long history of equating a woman’s, or a girl’s, worth with how she looks, perhaps as long as the history of (wo)mankind. I hope we can redirect this long trend into another direction where a woman’s and a girl’s worth is more about what she does. What if, instead, the Beach Boys sang:

            I been all around this great big world

            And I’ve [met] all kinds of giiiirls

            Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States,

            Back to the [most capable, confident, awesome, [add your empowering adjective here] girls in the word

            I wish they all could be California giiiirls (or, womeeen)

Anticipating Earning the Supplemental Income vs. Banking on Being the Breadwinner

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I am a professor. Why did I choose this profession? Several reasons come to mind. I loved psychology, I excelled in my psychology courses, and I always felt comfortable in a school setting. I was mentored by an Asian-American female professor and, through her, was able to see being a professor as a viable career. But a large part of my choice was also because others told me that being a professor was a family-friendly profession, especially for women. The schedule was flexible. If you had to take time off from work because your child was sick, you could do so. Professors have summers off. They have control over their time.

Discussing whether being a professor is actually a family-friendly profession deserves its own separate post. What strikes me now in my 30s is that I was already thinking about which professions were family friendly when I was 18, more than a decade ago. Life often brings you the unexpected. So was the case with my own life. Unfathomable to my 18-year-old self, I was single up until very recently and am currently childless. Yet, I structured my whole career, and spent years of training and schooling, around this notion of finding a family-friendly career.

This prioritization of personal relationships does not just abruptly appear during college. Even in preschool, girls engage in more fantasy play involving household roles and romance than do boys. In elementary school and adolescence, girls tend to read books with more relationship and romantic themes than do boys. In high school, as young as age 14, girls place more importance on marriage than boys. Girls also expect marriage to be more important than their careers compared to boys. In college, young women anticipate marriage and parenthood more so than young men. Where does this preoccupation with romance, family, and relationships come from? Intriguing new research suggests that even in infancy, girls tend to be more interested in people and faces than boys, whereas boys tend to be more interested in “things”, or objects, than girls, suggesting the role of biology. However, I also have a hunch that society cultivates this preoccupation with relationships from a young age in girls more so than in boys.

I don’t want it to seem like prioritizing family is a bad thing. I love being a professor, and I am grateful for being able to do work that I find interesting, challenging, and meaningful. However, I think that when making my decisions about which career to pursue, I unconsciously assumed that in the future: (i) I would be married, (ii) I would have children, (iii) I would have a partner that would help me raise these said children, and (iv) my financial contribution to the family would be less than my partner’s. What if I had thought otherwise? What if, since I was a girl, I thought I would be the sole financial supporter of myself? What if, as a girl, I knew that the weight of my family’s well-being would fall on me? Would I have chosen a different career? My sophomore and junior years in college were filled with daily angst about choosing to major in psychology or economics, another subject I found interesting. If I had banked on being the breadwinner or the sole supporter of my financial well-being, would I have gone into a more lucrative field? Why did I assume I would be able to count on someone else to make the “real money” in my household? I don’t think I ever articulated this or clearly thought this through when I was making these decisions back in college. It was more of an implicit assumption that seemed so assured that it did not need to be made explicit.

Most girls (and boys) are taught these marriage and family scripts and these gender roles at quite a young age and many believe them. Growing up in a conservative neighborhood, the child of middle-class Asian immigrant parents, who attended a conservative church, the male-provider/female-homemaker family structure was all I ever saw. Friends’ mothers who did work tended to earn the supplemental income, often working jobs well beneath their intelligence, schooling, and capabilities. They worked as administrative assistants and school lunch assistants. Many of my aunts with graduate degrees gave up their careers permanently to take care of their children.

As I write, I can hear dissenting voices reporting different upbringings. I realize that my upbringing was privileged. In lower-income families, women do not have the luxury of being the supplemental income earner or of being the homemaker. Their incomes are necessary and vital to the survival of their families. In many lower-income families, women are also more likely to be single mothers than in middle-income families. They may be the sole earners supporting their children and possibly even their parents. Their choices for career paths may have been more limited. Upbringings concerning expectations for work and family can also vary by culture. In several qualitative studies, when psychologists and sociologists interview parents about how they aspire to raise their daughters, African American parents stand out. They report a special emphasis on preparing their daughters to be strong and to expect to be the pillars of both their families and communities.

So far, I have reflected on my personal experience as a woman and as a younger girl. What about the experiences of men and boys? Promoting the norm of heterosexual families where the man earns the money and the woman’s income is supplemental, if at all existent, can harm men and boys as well. Imagine all the men we know in stable but staid jobs. Some of them genuinely love their jobs, sure. But how many of them felt pressure to earn a certain income to provide for their future families? How many boys feel that they have to put aside their true passions in order to live up to societal standards requiring men to be the providers? Gender roles are constricting for women and girls, yes, but we often forget how punishing they can be for men and boys. As more men voice their desires for work-family balance, and as more women attain higher education and climb the corporate ladder, society might slowly change. However, a handful of very recent studies suggest that, as of now, men receive severe approbation for deviating from masculine work norms. For example, if they work part-time or choose to use flex time, men are penalized in various ways, such as receiving lower job evaluations, being judged as less masculine, and even earning lower wages.

Teaching children gender norms regarding who should be the financial provider of one’s family, teaching girls to invest much time and energy on romantic relationships, and teaching girls to expect and desire traditional marriage and family structures in the future might have harmful consequences, especially if life brings you the unexpected, as it often does. Girls may end up finding themselves not being able to be financially independent. Boys may end up whittling away at a job they don’t much care for, but that pays well. I hope we can make a conscious effort to provide more diverse examples of how families can be like both in real life and in the media. The models children, especially girls, see around them can affect their anticipated family roles and occupational aspirations (also see here).