In the meantime, media messages reinforce many of society's gender expectations. Commercials for 'girl toys' feature lulling voices and songs, while 'boy toy' ads blast loud, strident music and gravel-voiced male announcers. And it doesn't help that there are fewer role models for girls than there are for boys. "Boys generally won't watch programs or ads with strong females, but girls will watch shows with either strong males or females," says McGee. "So producers are more likely to go with what captures the most viewers." Of course, there is some girl-friendly programming on TV. Blue's Clues stars a preppy girl puppy, and the hit show Dora the Explor showcases an adventurous girl; Powerpuff Girls features three fearless 5-year-old crimefighters. But, McGee notes, female-friendly shows are still a minority.
While girls do find more positive role models in books, the same trends persist. Mary Trepanier-Street, professor of early childhood education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, learned the effect this has on children when she studied the creative writing of Detroit elementary students. Both boys and girls overwhelmingly gave leading roles to boys and men in their stories. "Female characters were mostly princesses and teachers," she notes.
When she studied preschoolers' attitudes about "appropriate" occupations for men and women, she found little difference from her research in the 1980s -- but discovered that their minds could be changed without much effort: After preschoolers were read a series of books featuring females and males in nontraditional roles, the children were more willing to accept those roles, says Trepanier-Street: "Exposure to different options is crucial."
Appearance Is Not Everything
"Girls are preoccupied at younger ages with their size and shape," says Jennifer Biely, who brings life-size puppet shows on healthy body images to kindergartens and elementary schools as executive director of the National Eating Disorders Association, an education program in Seattle. By fourth grade, 40% of girls have dieted, the organization has found. Younger girls also complain that their naturally rounded tummies don't curve in as models' stomachs do. "Girls are learning bad messages at home, where there may be a lot of negative comments among moms about their own size, and from the unrealistic images of girls and women they see in the media," says Biely.