A steady diet of exploitative, sexually provocative depictions of women feeds a poisonous trend in women’s and girls’ perceptions of their bodies.
Editor’s note: When Ms. was launched as a “one-shot” sample insert in New York magazine in December , it was a brazen act of independence. At the time, the feminist movement was either denigrated or dismissed in the so-called mainstream media. Most magazines marketed to women were limited to advice about finding a husband, saving marriages, raising babies or using the right cosmetics.
To pay tribute to five decades of reporting, rebelling and truth-telling, Ms.’s series From the Vault includes some of our favorite feminist classics from the last 50 years of Ms.
On a typical day, you might see ads featuring a naked woman’s body tempting viewers to buy an electronic organizer, partially exposed women’s breasts being used to sell fishing line, or a woman’s rear—wearing only a thong—being used to pitch a new running shoe. Meanwhile, on every newsstand, impossibly slim (and digitally airbrushed) cover “girls” adorn a slew of magazines. With each image, you’re hit with a simple, subliminal message: Girls’ and women’s bodies are objects for others to visually consume.
If such images seem more ubiquitous than ever, it’s because U.S. residents are now exposed to anywhere from 3, to 5, advertisements a day—up from to 2, a day in the s. The Internet accounts for much of this growth, and young people are particularly exposed to advertising: 70 percent of to year-olds use social networking technologies such as MySpace and Facebook, which allow advertisers to infiltrate previously private communication space.
Although mass media has always objectified women, it has become increasingly provocative. More and more, female bodies are shown as outright objects (think Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg in the recent horror movie Grindhouse), are literally broken into parts (the disembodied woman’s torso in advertisements for TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles) or are linked with sexualized violence (simulated crime scenes on America’s Next Top Model featuring seemingly dead women).
A steady diet of exploitative, sexually provocative depictions of women feeds a poisonous trend in women’s and girls’ perceptions of their bodies, one that has recently been recognized by social scientists as self-objectification—viewing one’s body as a sex object to be consumed by the male gaze. Like W.E.B. DuBois’s famous description of the experience of Black Americans, self-objectification is a state of “double consciousness … a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”
Women who self-objectify are desperate for outside validation of their appearance and present their bodies in ways that draw attention. A study I did of 71 randomly selected female students from a liberal arts college in Los Angeles, for example, found that 70 percent were medium or high self-objectifiers, meaning that they have internalized the male gaze and chronically monitor their physical appearance. Boys and men experience self-objectification as well, but at a much lower rate—probably because, unlike women, they rarely get the message that their bodies are the primary determination of their worth.
Researchers have learned a lot about self-objectification since the term was coined in by University of Michigan psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson and Colorado College psychology professor Tomi-Ann Roberts. Numerousstudiessincethen have shown that girls and women who self-objectify are more prone to depression and low self-esteem and have less faith in their own capabilities, which can lead to diminished success in life. They are more likely to engage in “habitual body monitoring”—constantly thinking about how their bodies appear to the outside world—which puts them at higher risk for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. And they are prone to embarrassment about bodily functions such as menstruation, as well as general feelings of disgust and shame about their bodies.
Self-objectification has also been repeatedly shown to sap cognitive functioning, because of all the attention devoted to body monitoring. For instance, a study asked two groups of women to take a math exam—one group in swimsuits, the other in sweaters. The swimsuit-wearers, distracted by body concerns, performed significantly worse than their peers in sweaters.
Several of my own surveys of college students indicate that this impaired concentration by self-objectifiers may hurt their academic performance. Those with low self-objectification reported an average GPA of , whereas those with high self-objectification reported a While this gap may appear small, in graduate school admissions it represents the difference between being competitive and being out of the running for the top schools.
Another worrisome effect of self-objectification is that it diminishes political efficacy—a person’s belief that she can have an impact through the political process. In another survey of mine, 33 percent of high self-objectifiers felt low political efficacy, compared to 13 percent of low self-objectifiers. Since political efficacy leads to participation in politics, having less of it means that self-objectifiers may be less likely to vote or run for office.
The effects of self-objectification on young girls are of such growing concern that the American Psychological Association published an investigative report on it last year. The APA found that girls as young as seven years old are exposed to clothing, toys, music, magazines and television programs that encourage them to be sexy or “hot”—teaching them to think of themselves as sex objects before their own sexual maturity. Even thong underwear is being sold in sizes for 7- to year-olds. The consequence, wrote Kenyon College psychology professor Sarah Murnen in the journal Sex Roles, is that girls “are taught to view their bodies as ‘projects’ that need work before they can attract others, whereas boys are likely to learn to view their bodies as tools to use to master the environment.”
Fredrickson, along with Michigan communications professor Kristen Harrison (both work within the university’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender), recently discovered that self-objectification actually impairs girls’ motor skills. Their study of girls, ages 10 to 17, found that self-objectification impeded girls’ ability to throw a softball, even after differences in age and prior experience were factored out. Self-objectification forced girls to split their attention between how their bodies looked and what they wanted them to do, resulting in less forceful throws and worse aim.
One of the more stunning effects of self-objectification is its impact on sex. Nudity can cause great anxiety among self-objectifiers, who then become preoccupied with how their bodies look in sexual positions. One young woman I interviewed described sex as being an “out of body” experience during which she viewed herself through the eyes of her lover, and, sometimes, through the imaginary lens of a camera shooting a porn film. As a constant critic of her body, she couldn’t focus on her own sexual pleasure.
Self-objectification can likely explain some other things that researchers are just starting to study. For instance, leading anti-sexist male activist and author Jackson Katz observes, “Many young women now engage in sex acts with men that prioritize the man’s pleasure, with little or no expectation of reciprocity.” Could this be another result of women seeing themselves as sexual objects, not agents?
Disturbingly, some girls and women celebrate their object status as a form of empowerment. This is evident in a booming industry of T-shirts for women that proclaim their object status, such as one on which “Fuck Foreplay” is written across a half-used tube of KY Jelly, suggesting that the wearer is ready for penetration at a moment’s notice. (This shirt also propagates the notion that men do not enjoy foreplay.) Other shirts make light of rape, with words such as “Violate Me” or “No Means Eat Me Out First.”
At the root of this normalization of self-objectification may lie new consumer values in the U.S. Unlike the “producer citizen” of yesteryear—invoked in the s by John F. Kennedy’s request to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—the more common “consumer citizen” of today asks what the country, and everyone else, can do for him or her. Consumercitizens increasingly think of relationships with others as transactions in which they receive something, making them more comfortable consuming other human beings, visually or otherwise.
What would our lives look like if we viewed our bodies as tools to master our environment, instead of projects to be constantly worked on? What if our sexual expressions were based on our own pleasure as opposed to a narrow, consumerist idea of male sexual pleasure? What would disappear from our lives if we stopped seeing ourselves as objects?
Self-objectification isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So what can we do about it?
First, we can recognize how our everyday actions feed the larger beast, and realize that we are not powerless. Mass media, the primary peddler of female bodies, can be assailed with millions of little consumer swords. We can boycott companies and engage in other forms of consumer activism, such as socially conscious investments and shareholder actions.
We can also contact companies directly to voice our concerns and refuse to patronize businesses that overtly depict women as sex objects. An example of women’s spending power, and the limits of our tolerance for objectification, can be found in the 12 percent dip in profits of clothing company Victoria’s Secret this year—due, according to the company’s CEO, to its image becoming “too sexy.” Victoria’s Secret was not the target of an organized boycott—rather, its increasingly risqué “bra and panty show” seems to have begun alienating women, who perhaps no longer want to simply be shown as highly sexualized window dressing.
Another strategy to counter one’s own tendency to self-objectify is to make a point of buying products, watching programs and reading publications that promote more authentic women’s empowerment. This can be difficult, of course, in a media climate in which companies are rarely wholeheartedly body-positive. For instance, Dove beauty products launched a much-lauded advertising campaign that used “real women” (i.e., not super-skinny ones) instead of models, but then Dove’s parent company, Unilever, put out hypersexual ads for Axe men’s body spray that showed the fragrance driving scantily clad women into orgiastic states.
Locating unadulterated television and film programming is also tough. Even Lifetime and Oxygen, TV networks created specifically for women, often portray us as weak victims or sex objects and present a narrow version of thin, white “beauty.” Action films that promise strong female protagonists (think of the women of X-Men, or Lara Croft from Tomb Raider) usually deliver these characters in skintight clothes, serving the visual pleasure of men.
Feminist media criticism, at least, is plentiful. Ms., Bitch and others, along with publications for young girls such as New Moon Magazine, provide thoughtful analyses of media from various feminist perspectives. NOW’s Love Your Body website critiques offensive ads and praises body-positive ones. Blogs, both well known and lesser known, provide a platform for women and girls to vent about how the media depicts them. And there’s some evidence that criticizing media helps defuse its effects: Murnen’s study found that grade school girls who had negative reactions to pictures of objectified women reported higher self-esteem.
A more radical, personal solution is to actively avoid media that compels us to self-objectify—which, unfortunately, is the vast majority of movies, television programs and women’s magazines. My research with college-aged women indicates that the less women consume media, the less they self-objectify, particularly if they avoid fashion magazines. By shutting out media, girls and women can create mental and emotional space for true self-exploration.
What would our lives look like if we viewed our bodies as tools to master our environment, instead of projects to be constantly worked on? What if our sexual expressions were based on our own pleasure as opposed to a narrow, consumerist idea of male sexual pleasure? What would disappear from our lives if we stopped seeing ourselves as objects? Painful high heels? Body hatred? Constant dieting? Liposuction? Unreciprocated oral sex?
It’s hard to know. Perhaps the most striking outcome of self-objectification is the difficulty women have in imagining identities and sexualities truly our own. In solidarity, we can start on this path, however confusing and difficult it may be.
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Tagged: From the Vault, Media, Media Representation, Media Sexism, Mental Health, Young Women and Girls
About Caroline Heldman
Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
Media Messages to Young Girls: Does “Sexy Girl” Trump “Girl Power”?
Media Messages to Young Girls: Does “Sexy Girl” Trump “Girl Power”?
A briefing paper prepared by Christia Spears Brown, University of Kentucky for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Children face continued social isolation this fall, with 21 of the 25 largest school districts in the country choosing remote learning instead of in-person classes. This means children will consume more social media than usual. Media images will outnumber and may well outweigh real-life interactions with kids their own age. Although boys and girls consume the same amount of media, that extra dose of media exposure may have very different consequences for boys and girls, slowing down ongoing progress toward gender equality.
Do Girls Really “Rule”?
Girls and women have made many strides toward gender equality in the past 30 years. In , two-thirds of Americans said it was better for men to do the breadwinning while women stayed home to take care of the family. By , the figures were reversed: Two-thirds of Americans and a full three-quarters of millennials – now say men and women should be equal both at work and at home. Thirty years ago, little girls were still routinely cautioned to “act like a lady” and not to compete with boys at school or in sports. Today, girls are encouraged to think they can excel in all sorts of activities formerly confined to men.
Many girls seem to have gotten the “girl power” message. Among Americans under age 35 today, equal numbers of men and women are practicing law, while 60% of physicians are women. Since Title IX was passed in , there has been a nearly ten-fold increase in girls who play high school sports.
Or Is the Real Rule for Girls “Just Be Sexy”?
But at the same time, the mass media deluges girls and women with a very different message, one that encourages them to seek approval by the way they dress and look rather than by their abilities and talents. Beginning in early childhood, girls and women are bombarded with the message that the best way to have value and achieve high status is to be sexy. This message, which sometimes masquerades as a form of empowerment, perpetuates stereotypes that may prove just as difficult to overturn as those of “the feminine mystique.” The diffidence and modesty teens and young women were expected to portray in the past has been replaced with an equally restrictive expectation to wear revealing clothes that accentuate breasts and buttocks (surgically enhancing them if necessary), sport just the right amount of make-up to be alluring but not “cheap,” and carry themselves, preferably in high heels, as if constantly trying to attract sexual attention from (adult) men. Both ideals of women, past and present, center around their self-presentation, previously as passively submissive, now as active architects of their sexual objectification.
This message starts early. When researchers analyzed 10 of the most popular television programs among White and Latina elementary school girls in the U.S., they found that only 38% of the characters were girls, but 75 percent of the time, these girls were presented in sexually objectifying ways. So girls are less likely than boys to be major characters or initiators of action on shows, and when they do make an appearance on the screen, they are typically wearing skimpy clothing, making comments about their bodies, and flirting with the boys’ characters. This delivers a two-pronged message: girls are less important overall than boys, and the only way to be important – to be noticed – is to be sexy, attractive, and flirty with boys.
Sexualized Messages Are Everywhere
On average, children in elementary school watch four and a half hours of television a day: At this rate of exposure, children see approximately 78, examples of “sexy girl” role models just in children’s programming alone every year. And with schools, playgrounds, and after-school activities grounded, children are likely to consume much more media this year.
Sexualized depictions of girls and women are prevalent in nearly all forms of mainstream media, including magazines, video games, music videos, television shows, and movies. A study published in Pediatricsreported that sexually objectifying portrayals of women appear in 52% of all magazine advertisements and 59% of music videos.
Music videos seem to be especially influential in propagating sexualized stereotypes. In a forthcoming paper based on our latest research, we asked seventh-grade boys and girls if they agreed with several statements expressing sexualized gender stereotypes, such as “there is nothing wrong with boys being primarily interested in a girl’s body,” “pretty girls should expect to be flirted with and should learn how to handle it,” and “using her body and looks is the best way for a girl to attract a boy.” All the students endorsed some of these statements, but of the seventh-graders who never watched music videos, only 17 percent agreed with more than half. Among youth who watched between 4 to 6 hours per week, a third agreed with more than half these statements. And among seventh-graders who watched 7 to 9 hours of music videos per week, a full 50% agreed with more than half such statements.
This does not even count the impact of the sexualized toys marketed to young girls. MGA Entertainment, aiming at the 6-to year-old market, recently released “L.O.L. Surprise! Dolls,” outfitted in mini-skirts, high heels or thigh-high boots, and fishnet stockings. As a recent viral video indicated, some of the dolls reveal clingy lingerie when dunked in cold water.
Girls Who Dress Sexy Are Assumed to be Popular, But Not Smart
Even before the end of elementary school, girls come to equate looking sexualized as a marker of popularity and status. Girls, especially prior to puberty, aspire to look sexualized before they have any understanding of sexuality or sexual behavior, and before they see it as a way to attract the attention of boys. Instead they are reflecting what the media has told them their most successful peers are like and who they are most likely to hang out with. When six- to nine-year old girls were asked what outfit would be popular with other girls, they selected an extremely short black mini-skirt and an off-the-shoulder top, an outfit significantly more sexualized than what they said they wore every day, and more sexualized than what they thought boys would like. So looking sexy is seen as a route to be popular among one’s peer group.
On the other hand, looking sexy is not seen as admirable in other ways. Experimental studies with children, teens and adults of both sexes reveal that women and girls who “look sexy” are consistently rated as less nice, less smart, and less competent than similar females who are not portrayed as sexualized. Indeed, they are often denigrated for these traits by the very same girls who aspire to look like them! In our research with elementary school children, children as young as 5 tell us that, compared to non-sexualized girls wearing jeans and a blouse, girls in skimpy clothing with heavy make-up and jewelry are not as nice, not as athletic, and not as smart as the other girls, but that they are more popular. When asked to describe a sexualized girl in a picture, elementary school-aged girls say things like, “Girls that dress like that aren’t very smart” or that they just “act dumb.” Yet a large proportion of girls aspire to look like the sexualized girl, even while saying she has very few redeeming qualities.
The Downside of Succeeding at Sexy
Unfortunately, the association of successful sexual display with shortcomings in other areas can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our research with girls aged 11 to 14 shows that when girls prioritize sexualized attractiveness, even temporarily, they appear to deprioritize, within themselves, traits they presume to be incompatible with sexiness, such as intelligence. This tendency shows up even earlier: When researchers gave some elementary-aged girls a sexualized doll (“Fashion” Barbie) to play with for just five minutes, the career aspirations they reported afterwards were more limited than those of girls who played with the non-sexualized Mr. Potato Head. Researchers in both Europe and the US find that, among girls, valuing being sexualized, or even just being exposed to sexualized images of girls, leads to lower levels of working memory (the memory necessary to solve math problems and remember the beginning of the sentence while reading the end of the sentence), plus worse performance in girls’ math, language arts, science, and social studies (in both their grades and standardized test scores).
In our research with middle school girls, we find that seventh-grade girls who believe that girls should be valued for their sexual appeal have lower academic motivation and less confidence in their academic ability by the eighth grade, regardless of how well they are currently doing in school. Even girls who do well in school report downplaying what they know when they value being sexualized, saying they don’t raise their hands even when they know the answer and they pretend to do worse on a test than they actually did. So instead of striving for academic excellence, we see middle school girls concluding that the most direct path to social status is to be sexy, and that requires “playing dumb.”
Once girls adopt a sexualized look, this penalizes them in their interactions with adults, who tend to assume that such girls are not just “playing dumb,” but actually are dumb. For example, when adults were shown pictures of a fifth-grade girl dressed in either a tee-shirt, jeans, and Mary Jane shoes or a short dress with a leopard print cardigan and a purse, the girl dressed in the sexy outfit was described as less intelligent, capable, competent, and determined than the girl in jeans. This held true even when the sexualized girl was described as being an honors student and the president of the student council! Given that adults also rate sexualized girls as less smart than non-sexualized girls, regardless of their academic accomplishments, girls who manage to live up to cultural ideals of sexiness face lowered expectations for their academic success from their teachers, their peers, and themselves.
Constantly seeing sexualized females affects boys and girls in even more disturbing ways. Elementary school girls who aspire to wear sexy clothing and think that sexy equates with popular are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, rating their ideal body as thinner than their actual body; by adolescence, that is associated with disordered eating, an early sign of the eating disorders that disproportionately affect girls in their teens.
Children in elementary school who were exposed to pictures of sexualized women in experimental studies rated those women as less than fully human and less worthy of being helped when in danger than non-sexualized women. In a recent meta-analysis of 59 different studies, researchers documented that the more sexualized media teens are exposed to, the more likely they are to endorse “rape myths,” such as the belief that it is okay for a woman to be raped if she is wearing suggestive clothing. The link between seeing sexualized women in the media and condoning sexual violence towards women was the strongest among White boys between the ages of 11 and
Despite this long-range danger to women, the drive to be sexualized to assume one’s value comes exclusively from sexual attractiveness is largely coming from girls (or more precisely, girls’ reactions to the barrage of sexualized media messages) rather than from boys their own age. In our studies with elementary school children, when we ask children to tell us about the sexualized girls, it is girls who recount elaborate stories about why sexualized girls are more popular and attractive. Boys in elementary school are still pretty clueless about the different implications of a girl wearing a belly shirt or a hoodie. This fits our understanding of how stereotypes develop in children: we all pay more attention to the cultural messages that are relevant to us. Girls are closely paying attention to what is valued in women and girls – and despite all the feel-good slogans about “girl power,” the message girls get from the media is that sexiness is valued above everything else. As long as this is the standard girls learn from the mass media, full equality will be unattainable.
For Further Information
Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D.
Lester and Helen Milich Professor of Children at Risk, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky
Director, Center for Equality and Social Justice
Author, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: Raising Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes
Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/girls-media-messaging-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/girls-media-messaging-release/
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how Americas families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions For more information, contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, [email protected]
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