Guy Friends, Girl Friends


Photo: Arian Zwegers/flickr

In my previous post I discussed sexual assault and its possible roots in biased gender attitudes. I suggested that one possible way to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault and the acceptance of rape myths is to encourage more interaction and friendship between girls and boys from a young age. Do children need encouragement? In most cultures, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, the current picture of gender relations among children is not great. By age 5, most children already show favoritism for their own gender compared to the other gender. A few studies have shown that five-year-old children, on average, even expressed negative attitudes toward the other gender. These biased attitudes continue through elementary school and have consequences. Children’s biased attitudes have been linked to unfair treatment of the other gender as well as distancing from the other gender.

Most of us can remember ourselves possessing similar attitudes growing up. We can also remember the stark separation of girls and boys, which continues today. One famous study found that preschoolers spent 4 times the amount of their free play time with same-gender versus other-gender peers – a huge difference. In elementary school, every Sunday we would line up to go into the worship hall. The girls would be wearing dresses and big bows, white tights or turned-down lace socks spotted with red punch we would inevitably spill. The boys would look uncomfortable in their black and blue clip-on ties and white shirts. The boys would line up in the front all together. The girls would line up in the back all together. Every week there would be vigorous jostling as everyone attempted to not be the unfortunate link between the girls and the boys. Whichever sucker ended up standing next to the other gender always looked miserable. The other gender had cooties, after all.

It seems kind of funny and most of us would probably feel okay if we observed this today. It seems natural to us, and we know eventually the genders will mix. However, I’d like to challenge us to not shrug and be so tolerant of the status quo. Think about it – most parents don’t blink an eye when throwing a birthday party with only girls or only boys invited. Even school policies may unintentionally encourage single-gender parties. My sister tells me that at some schools, in an effort to promote inclusion, a child is only given two alternatives – invite the entire class to a party (often unwieldy and expensive) or only invite girls or boys. But imagine if parents or schools encouraged only inviting White kids to a party? Racial/ethnic or religious segregation makes most of us uncomfortable, but gender segregation rarely as much. Yet in the same way that racial/ethnic or religious segregation can promote the stereotyping of the “other” and foster prejudice, gender segregation can do the same. Without much interaction, the other gender may seem foreign and mysterious.

Compounded by society’s messages that girls and women are less competent than men, boys may not only see girls as weird, but also as less capable and in some ways inferior. One study I recently came across has haunted me. French ninth graders read about hypothetical girls and boys who had very good grades. When boys succeeded children thought that these boys were naturally smart and would likely continue to succeed in the future. But when girls succeeded children thought that she must have just worked really hard and would not necessarily succeed in the future. Somehow these adolescents are internalizing the message that boys have more natural intelligence than girls.

We may often feel comfortable with girls and boys avoiding each other because we are intermingled in other ways. We may have sisters, brothers, male and female cousins. Eventually, if we are heterosexual, we may marry someone of the other gender. However, we should well know that even if one has a wife or a girlfriend that may not lessen sexism or the devaluation of women. Everyone has a mother, but there are still sexist sons and daughters. Psychologists have separated out two kinds of sexism. One kind is hostile sexism, which are outright attitudes reflecting the view that women are inferior to men – less smart, less capable and the belief that women have already gotten more gains than they deserve, like in career opportunities. Fox news chief, Roger Ailes, is a good example. The second type of sexism psychologists have termed “benevolent” sexism, which is somewhat of a misnomer. It is the belief and actions which reflect thinking that women and girls are helpless. They need to be put on a pedestal and given special treatment. Insidious in this thinking is the belief that women and girls are weak and fragile – that’s why they need special care and protection. Benevolent sexism also includes the belief that men should be the ones rescuing the damsel in distress and protecting her. Both men and women around the world often hold these beliefs. It doesn’t seem so bad, right? Every woman needs a little help putting her luggage in the overhead compartment, right? The dangerous part is that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are often positively correlated. In countries where benevolent sexist attitudes are high, hostile sexist attitudes tend to be high too. Countries where benevolent sexism is espoused tend to have lower rates of female leaderships, health, work opportunities, and education. So even though we are more intermingled by gender than, say, by race/ethnicity, we can still hold sexist views and still believe in gender stereotypes.

On a more positive note, let’s think about all the positives about having friends who are of the other gender. I didn’t really get to enjoy the benefits of having guy friends (no, I’m not talking about those benefits!) until later in life. Being the youngest of three sisters, I would say my confidence in my ability to interact effectively with boys was pretty low, especially while growing up. I was comfortable around girls and especially around girls with only sisters. I would hang out with boys during elementary school, but only in groups, and usually only in a sports context. Many of my friends were extremely athletic, and were better athletes than the boys. We would play basketball on the pavement, kickball on the fields, tetherball, and handball. But I never had a close friend who was a boy. There was no boy that I shared my secrets with.

One thing I appreciate about adulthood is that I was able to eventually make good guy friends. Guys that I can write emails to, can sometimes talk on the phone with. Guys I can ask for advice about relationships with – who better to tell you when another guy is just plain crazy? Guys to pump up your confidence when you’re feeling low. Guys who are great listeners and are going through their own issues, too. Guys who will tell you like it is when your girlfriends pander to you with what you want to hear. Women with husbands or boyfriends who are their best friends can probably attest to these benefits as well. Sometimes you need a push from your husband or significant other to ask for that raise, to take a risk with your career, or to demand some deserved respect when it is being withheld.

I am so glad I was finally exposed to these wonderful men. I think these friendships lessened my fear of men and increased my confidence in interacting with them, which benefits me at work and in other aspects of my life. They helped me laugh at myself more and try to find humor in tough situations. I hope that being friends with me also benefited the men as well. In some ways, I think I did believe some of the stereotypes – for example, that men are stoic and don’t feel things even though they are human beings! I wonder, though, what might have been if I had made these kinds of friendships earlier in my life. Would I be a different person, have different preferences or interests? Would I be more thick-skinned and funnier? What if many of the sexual assault perpetrators had best girlfriends, strong older sisters and feminist moms early on in life? Would that change their attitudes and actions towards women? Even though the tide of childhood usually gives way to gender segregation, perhaps we can try to push back and foster other-gender friendships from a young age.





Fear of Men


Photo: Kat Northern Lights Man/flickr

Part I

The Stanford rape victim’s open letter to her rapist made me angry. It made me cry. It hit closer to home than most sexual assault headlines do. I am a Stanford alum. Every time I read or heard the headline about the “Stanford rape case” my ears would perk up, my eyes would be drawn. It felt more relevant to me. I felt shame.

Having completed my undergrad at Stanford, I could easily imagine what this privileged jock, Brock Turner, might be like. My freshmen dorm, Donner, was notorious for housing athletes. People said we had the best-looking men on campus. They were indeed handsome, self-assured, often cocky, and could be found roaming the hallway in packs ready to go party on a Thursday night. It was easy to see that with their athletic prowess they had likely been lauded their whole lives and felt on top of the world at one of the best universities in the world. I mean, look at how we are praising them now, winning medals at the Olympics. They are kings and queens, America’s darlings.

Reading about the case, I could also easily imagine the location of this frat house late at night where the crime took place. Kappa Alpha has a cushy location, right around Lake Lagunita. I imagined during that terrible night it was quiet and dark, paths lit by hazy yellow street lamps meant to save energy, crickets singing, dry grass, the occasional night biker whizzing by. I cry with this victim, her sister, and her family. Like Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote a response to the rape victim’s open letter, I am awed by her strength and bravery.

The sad thing is that these kinds of headlines keep reemerging. As Vice President Biden noted in his letter, rates of sexual assault are epidemic especially on our college campuses. Statisticians estimate that between 20-25% of women will experience attempted or completed rape during their college careers. In college I volunteered as an intern for the National Asian Women’s Health Organization. I knew the numbers back then – I even taught them to others in workshops. However, even though I taught these numbers to others, I found myself doubting their veracity because they are so disturbing. Sexual assault also happens off college campuses. Other incidents haunt me from the news – the mass sexual assault on a number of German women during New Year’s Eve in Cologne, the horrific gang rape of a young girl on a bus in India. Violence against women can hit close to home too. On the July 4 weekend, two women were violently attacked and raped in my neighborhood, in a normally safe area in Los Angeles. One was walking by a busy park at 5pm on the holiday and another was walking home at 2am the Saturday before that. The police has taped flyers with the man’s blurry photograph on street posts. When I lived alone in Harlem, a woman was attacked and raped on her way to work on an early Tuesday morning, 5am, waiting for the train. She waited in the exact spot that I would usually stand at for the blue line. That stuck with me for a long time. I kept imagining this woman, waking up in the morning as usual, probably cursing her alarm clock, but trudging through the sleepiness to get to work on time for a normal day, not knowing what awaited her. It is sickening.

What’s more – experiencing and even just hearing about this violence can make women fear men more. It made me scared. Immediately after the July 4 weekend, I did not walk around by myself in our neighborhood and stayed inside. In Harlem, I began taking expensive cab rides from downtown straight to my brownstone door when I would return after a night out. When I would walk home at night, my heart would beat fast. Fear was thick in my ears, I swear I could feel the cortisol levels rise in my blood. At the same time I would try to not look scared with headphones in my ears, but no music playing as if this was a smart defense strategy. I was afraid of some of the men. I became well-acquainted with fear during that year.

Being aware of sexual violence started from when I was young. Like many other parents, in an attempt to keep me safe, my mother consistently warned me to be vigilant of dangerous men. She urged me to err on the side of mistrust, because Dateline and other evening news magazines showed evidence that perpetrators were often people you knew. Because of these stories my mother would sometimes prohibit me, despite my pleas, from sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house to keep me safe. In my readings, I found that my mother was not unusual. Especially for immigrant mothers in a new land (whether Latina or Asian), safety of their daughters is important, and they often see the world as threatening. Many immigrant adolescent girls report more restrictions on going out and dating because of these fears. It was always startling to me that in our study of New York Mexican-immigrant mothers, several brought up their fears of future sexual violence against their daughters, even by family members. Their daughters were only one-year-old at the time, but that was something they already thought about. Sometimes I was allowed to go to a friend’s birthday party, but I would have to leave before the sleepover part. It was probably one of the earliest ways that I became aware that I was from a different cultural background than my peers. My “American” friends’ parents seemed to let their daughters sleep over at friends’ houses without a thought. Peers can foster fear as well. For my generation during the 80s, there was a grisly news story about an intruder invading a girls’ sleepover and murdering one of the girls. Sometimes my young girlfriends and I would recount this nightmare in whispers to each other at our own slumber parties.

However, as easy as it is to keep and feed this fear it compounds the problem. Hearing about violence against women will likely continue. But the encouragement of our leaders like President Barack Obama and President Francois Hollande, in the face of continuing terrorist attacks comes to mind. We should not let ourselves be ruled by fear or else they have won.

I have also been thinking about these men who afflict these terrible acts upon women. What kind of attitudes do they have towards women? Research has found that men who believed that men and women’s relationships are adversarial in nature were more likely to commit sexual assault in both prospective and concurrent studies. Endorsement in this adversarial relationship between men and women has also been found to be linked to more tolerance of rape, blaming rape victims more, and reporting that one would be more likely to to rape if no one would ever find out. Similar links have been found between endorsing more traditional gender roles and these kinds of attitudes. Factors leading to actually commit these crimes are multiple in nature – we cannot forget factors like impulsivity, antisocial tendencies, alcohol use, and being saturated in a masculine culture that endorses aggression. But one piece of the puzzle are these warped attitudes towards women. Many of these men probably devalue women – they think of them as objects, as separate, as inferior – to be used, abused, hurt for their own sick pleasures. How did these men end up this way?

As a developmental psychologist, I can’t help but think that we need to get at the root of these attitudes towards women at younger ages. If we can teach and encourage little boys and girls to be friends with one another, respect one another, and see each other as more than just an unknown other maybe this would help reduce the devaluation and abuse of women later on in life. I would speculate that adolescence might also be a critical time to encourage respect and friendship between the sexes as well, as scripts about romantic relationships and intimacy are formed.

-May Ling Halim


For the next post I will describe research on the state of gender relations and gender attitudes among children.

Shopping Socialization










Photo: Travel Aficionado/flickr

When I got engaged, within days friends and family asked me what kind of wedding dress would I want for the big day. And, kindly, they were so excited to take me dress shopping. It did end up being a special event to try on dresses with my mother, sisters, nieces, and best friends. But these interactions made me reflect on the role of shopping in ‘girl’ or feminine culture. For many women shopping is a friendship glue, a time of communion among mothers and daughters, sisters, and girlfriends.

Shopping often feels intimate. With my Southern Californian Orange County upbringing, so much of my childhood was spent in malls. My first memories of shopping were the familiar smell of new clothes in gigantic windowless stores, hiding myself in the racks, giggling, playing games with my older sister. By the time I was eight, I knew where the petite-size section (my mother’s go-to) was located in every major department store. As I got older, I remember frequently gathering inside a cramped dressing room with my mother. It was a time of fun possibilities imagining our future selves dressed in this or that and also a tiring time of taking off clothes and putting them back on under the glow of fluorescent lighting. My mother would give her opinion on a piece of clothing. Usually she thought my choices were too tight. I would give my opinion on my mother’s choices, warning her if a clothing choice was too “mom”-ish.

I think as I’ve moved away and now that I live farther from home, this is the kind of time together that my mother misses with me. It’s a one-on-one time to chat together and share how things are going, to look forward to upcoming events, and a chance to feel prettier.

For many women shopping represents a leisure activity, a treat. A good friend of mine had worked so hard for the past 10 years completing a biology degree during her undergrad, her medical school training, and residency. Her first thought when she got a job and had a few hours of free time was, “Let’s go shopping!”

But I wonder, why is shopping a “girl thing”, and why is shopping such a part of girl culture? In our own studies, when we interview five-year-olds and want to assess their knowledge of gender stereotypes, one of the items that we use is, “Who goes shopping? Mrs. Davis, Mr. Stephens, or both Mrs. Davis and Mr. Stephens?” The majority of young children already think that Mrs. Davis, the woman, goes shopping. Why do so many men abhor shopping?

Last winter break, I went to the mall with my sister and two nieces. It’s something that we always do when they are here. Honestly, there are not that many other choices in the area that are adult- and kid-friendly – a commonplace reflection of consumerist America. There’s air conditioning, a fun carousel for the kids, and frozen yogurt, what more could you ask for? We only had a little time left, so we split up, and I was left with my seven-year-old niece. I had the keen idea of finding something for going out. Lately I had been feeling like I was wearing the same black top over and over again. So we raced to H&M, a Swedish discount store with the latest trends that they copy from designers. I felt a little bad at my feverish scouring of the racks up and down the aisles, but my niece seemed to have no problem occupying herself by browsing the cute little hair clips and knick knacks that they keep near the register. Then I corralled her into the dressing room to help me decide on a skirt I was thinking about purchasing. What did she think?

My niece gamely said it was fine, and then patiently waited as I waited in a long line to buy my skirt. Two things crossed my mind. First, what a change in my niece from age 5 to now. She was so patient! But was she more patient because of her better self-regulation skills and developmental growth, or was it also because her enjoyment of shopping had increased? Was my niece already being inculcated into the girl culture of shopping? One of her current favorite stores is Claire’s, a jewelry and accessories store with thousands of options. Second, my interaction with my niece in the dressing room was perpetuating the female shopping culture. I was contributing to this socialization of shopping.

Some common themes I’ve touched upon before are pertinent here too. Women often shop with the goal of looking attractive and maintaining their appearances. I helped foster this in my niece as well. It normalizes this goal and implicitly underscores that, hey, this is important. We spend time on dressing well and making ourselves look good.

Another theme that arises is finances. I know for myself that sometimes I struggle with not going over my budget. I’m often tempted by the fancy clothing in fashion magazines and blogs that make it seem like beautiful designer clothes are attainable for the middle-class consumer. During my poor graduate school years, I spent $500 on a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse, which was 25% of my monthly income. Given my miniscule budget, I could have probably put that money to use on more useful things, but I was willing to risk not even being able to pay rent to have one. Purses are big in many cities, but were especially prominent in the New York pedestrian scene. Purses and engagement rings are to New York women what cars are like to Angelenos in terms of signaling social status to others. I rationalized my expenditure by saying to myself, well, at least I wasn’t going for the $2,000 purse line! (Yes, what a warped view I had). However, imagine if I had bought a $100 purse instead, which would have sufficed my needs, and saved and invested that leftover $400 five years ago? I wonder if socializing young girls to shop and care about fashion has a cumulative effect on their finances and on the finances of women as a whole. One study on adults conducted in South Korea would support this link. People who were more fashion-oriented exhibited more compulsive buying habits and used credit cards more.

When I think of my own friends and acquaintances, I often see a negative correlation between their need for nice clothing and furnishings and their financial situations. The friends I know who have the biggest nest eggs are the ones who, despite having high-flying jobs, still buy furniture at Ikea and non-name brand leather purses from the local department store.

Just as with the appearance culture, the female shopping culture is situated within a larger context. America’s economy is based on consumerism. We are told to shop, shop, shop in order to keep America’s economy healthy. These days we are even told that shopping is our patriotic duty. However, a large body of psychological research shows that materialism is associated with a lot of negative behaviors and outcomes. For example, people who are more materialistic tend to believe more that their expenditures will change their lives. They are more likely to make purchases for emotional reasons and engage in compulsive buying. They are also more likely to mismanage their credit. Materialism is also associated with lower well-being overall. While not its total converse, financial well-being is associated with better health and well-being. Despite this strong evidence, it is still hard to not get sucked into a consumerist mentality.

I appreciate all the intimate moments I had with my mother bonding over clothing and cinnamon pretzels with caramel dip. The time together when we shop gives us a chance to talk about how we’re doing. But there are other environments that can facilitate female bonding to occur other than one that encourages spending and possibly debt. A few times some students have told me that I never wear the same outfit to class. To clarify – this is wrong, but apparently this was the impression I gave. I admit that I was probably overzealous in putting together my work wardrobe when I first began my professor job. Perhaps the students were trying to give me a compliment, but it honestly made me feel embarrassed because I probably do have too many clothes. Thus, the challenge that I have posed to calm the drive to shop is a challenge I continue to take on for myself.

“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

003 2016 07 14 Beauty magazines edit smaller

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

002 Supplemental breadwinner small

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).