In a world where advertising-fueled media has become all but inescapable, where the pornography industry has secretly and seductively infiltrated all aspects of pop culture, and sexualized female bodies sell everything from children’s toys to deodorant, it’s easy to feel like sex appeal is the key to happiness and success. The truth is, it inspires shame, anxiety, and lost potential at every turn for girls and women. But here’s something we know for sure, and it’s a message we shout from the rooftops and have proved with our PhD research: There is more to be than eye candy. And when we figure out who we are outside the confines of just being looked at, we can do so much in this world.
We know that our ability to think critically about inescapable media messages is what we should believe about ourselves. Most often, those voices tell us females of all ages are to be valued for their sexual appeal, they should spend their lives striving for those ideals, and they will have a very hard time being loved and desired without reaching those goals (which are designed to be unattainable, for profit). Our doctoral research and the work we cite tells us the messages we get from media at every turn powerfully shape our reality. Our feelings about everything – our bodies, beauty, worth, potential – are formed as the media we choose whispers (and often YELLS) these harmful lies at us.
These lies are powerful, especially when we live in a country that is simultaneously the No. 1 global exporter of pop culture and the only industrialized nation that doesn’t teach media literacy in public school curriculum. While we teach our kids how to read classic literature, we have yet to help them understand and deconstruct media messages that shape their entire lives. We believe females everywhere must learn there is more to BE than eye candy – a message they won’t get from advertising-fueled mass media. Happiness comes in being, living, doing, and experiencing – not self-consciously strolling through life as an object to be looked at. And when you begin to realize that, you can start realizing the power of your abilities and the good you can do in a world so desperately in need of you. NOT a vision of you, but ALL of you.
Here’s our plan of attack: After a brief introduction to the sexualized landscape so common in pop culture today (from G-rated movies to XXX websites), we’ll break down the physical and emotional effects these types of now “normal” messages have on people, especially females. Next, we’ll arm you with strategies to reject those harmful messages and redefine what female worth, beauty, and power can and should mean.
Pornography Redefined With sexualized female bodies dotting our media landscape, (think new movie “Spring Breakers” with nude former Disney princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez advertised at every turn, Victoria’s Secret’s inescapable advertising in mailboxes, storefront windows, and TV, and increasingly sexified Disney’s fairy princesses) scholars and journalists seem to concur that the line between pop culture and pornography has shifted and blurred over the last decade. The last 10 years of our lives have been called “the rise of raunch” and “porno chic society,” which highlights the way media makers incorporate sexualized female bodies into their messages while totally denying they are pornographic. In the last 10 years of our lives, porn stars have become mainstream icons; the music industry has pushed the limits to the point of “soft-core” in words and images; and, as author Gail Dines (2010) describes, the pornography industry has worked carefully and strategically to “sanitize its products by stripping away the ‘dirt’ factor and reconstituting porn as fun, edgy, sexy and hot.” Today, the Playboy brand is a hit phenomenon for men and women, boys and girls – featuring the hit TV shows or any number of movies (2011′s animated hit “Hop” featuring the Playboy logo for our youngest audiences and 2008’s “House Bunny,” for example). Little girls are sold Playboy panties and bras at popular stores, as well as other push-up bras and sexy underwear at the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch and the Limited Too. Victoria’s Secret is now hitting young teens hard with their PINK line of clothing and it’s pornography-inspired ads, which we will not link to.
Of course, TV commercials don’t shy away from these dangerously sexualized images, either. Ever seen an Axe Body Spray commercial? They exclusively feature women and teen girls in sexually degrading ways and are shown on TV all hours of the day. (And don’t forget Dove – the company that sells “self esteem” is owned by the same company that owns Axe Body Spray! Really, Unilever?!) Drive down the freeway and you’ll see sky-high billboards with parts of women’s bodies made to represent women themselves in strikingly dangerous ways (unless you saw one of our 13 billboards with uniquely positive messages messages, including “There is more to BE than eye candy.” Woohoo!!!)
And in 2011, in the largest study of its kind, the Institute on Gender in Media found the more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in her life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become. Oh, there’s more: Of the female characters that exist in G-rated movies, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. Startlingly, the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. The vast majority of female characters in animated movies have an “ideal” body type that cannot exist in real life. In G-rated movies, for every one female character, there are three male characters. If it is a group scene, it changes to five to one, male to female. The only aspiration for female characters in nearly every instance is finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance.
When the millions of images of women and girls we see in media reflect a distorted reality where females are valued solely for their sexual appeal and the parts of their bodies, we have a problem and we must not only speak up, but fight back. These messages, found in the most “innocent” of children’s programming and movies, are dangerous at best and deadly at worst. Let’s talk about how these sexualized ideals translate into reality.
Sexualized So Young: So What? Our work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze. As psychological researchers Fredrickson & Roberts describe it, self-objectification is manifested as “the tendency to perceive one’s body according to externally perceivable traits (how it appears) instead of internal traits (what it can do).” Research shows young girls and women “self-objectify” when they think of themselves mostly or exclusively in sexual terms and when they equate their “sexiness” with a narrow idea of physical attractiveness (achieved through extremes like disordered eating and cosmetic surgery). And what do you know? Young women experience appearance-related anxiety the majority of the time, especially after viewing media images of sexualized female bodies or language so normalized today. Hospitalizations for little girls with eating disorders went up 100 percent in the last decade. Further, cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade to reach $12 billion in 2010, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on females – many younger than 18. No wonder that is the case when even the “mildest” of entertainment represents females of any age as sexual objects made up of digitally and surgically enhanced parts.
Dozens of studies show girls and women suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape: adolescent girls with a more objectified view of their bodies have diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness, and in a particularly insidious consequence of self-objectification, research proves undue attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance.* We know the dangerous and normalized act of female self-objectification works as a harmful tool to keep girls “in their place” as objects of sexual attraction and beauty, which seriously limits their ability to think freely and understand their value in a world so in need of their unique contributions and insight. There is more to be than eye candy, and we are responsible for believing that and spreading it far and wide.
Here is what we all need to do and know NOW:
We must Object to Self-Objectification. Constant media messages turn females into objects as they zoom in on parts of their bodies, pan up and down their bodies, and use dialogue/text revolving around their looks teach media consumers how to view females. When we understand the whole of objectification, we can better grasp the role it plays in our daily lives and the ways it may keep us from fulfilling all we want to do with our days – often in the form of self-objectification: Say you’re walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful day. Someone who has internalized an outsider’s perspective of herself will often spend more time adjusting her clothing or hair, wondering what other people are thinking of her, judging the shape of her shadow or reflection in a window, etc. She will picture herself walking – she literally turns herself into an object of vision – instead of enjoying the sunny weather, looking around, or thinking about anything else. If you find yourself the victim of this type of activity, you aren’t alone. In fact, you are just one of millions of females growing up in a world that teaches us to survey ourselves every waking moment.
Life is beautiful when you live it – really experience it – not when you are more concerned about appearing beautiful as you try to live. When you think of your happiest times, were they in front of the mirror? Were you happiest when you were working to appear attractive or beautiful to others? Happiness and beauty come from doing, acting, being – outside the confines of being looked at. So, today, what will you do to shake off the outsider’s gaze you’ve been taught to envision of yourself? Will you experiment with what your life becomes when you spend less time with your reflection and more time doing, acting, and being? Will you enjoy the world around you instead of hoping others are enjoying their view of you? Will you do something your self-policing outsider’s gaze kept you from doing before – like speak in front of a group of people? Run without worrying about the jiggle? Go to the store without making yourself get all done up? Today is the day to remember there is more to be than eye candy. And when you begin to realize that, everything changes. You start to realize your worth, your ability to do good and contribute light and happiness, and your beauty are powerful and needed NOW. Not once you lose weight or once your hair is colored and cut or once your clothes are just right. The world – your kids, the strangers on the street, your coworkers, need you. Not a vision of you, but ALL of you. What will you find you are capable of?
We Must Be Critical of Media, Not Yourself or Others. While the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, we are also the only industrialized country in the world without media literacy in public school curriculum. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a movie, train yourself and your family to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you and those you love!
• Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media? Do you believe the females in your life would feel better or worse about themselves after viewing or hearing this media? • Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages) • Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video game or website you are viewing? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes of your media of choice) • Is the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time? How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? Do they look like the females in your life?
We must unite with other like-minded people to speak up and fight back against these harmful messages that are inescapable today. Have you joined the fight? Our thriving Facebook fan page is a great place to start to get in touch with the most amazing positive messages and media literacy experts across the world.
* Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Harter, 1998; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Impett, Schooler, and Tolman, 2006; Major, Barr, & Zubek, 1999; McConnell, 2001; Polce-Lynch, Myers, & Kilmartin, 1998; Roberts & Gettman, 2004; Slater and Tiggemann, 2002; Strelan & Hargreaves, 2005.