By Devan Drabik; YWCA of USA. Devan is currently attending the 58th Session on the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Head Quarters in New York. She shares her views after attending one of the side events.
Flip through a fashion magazine, turn on the television, or listen to the lyrics of popular songs and unfortunately, you will quickly find a common theme: the sexualisation of women and girls. The images are steadily becoming more graphic and the messages are becoming more offensive. It is a tragic commentary on our society that sexualised messages have become so commonplace that many people have grown blind to the seriousness of this offense and often don’t acknowledge its devastating social impact.
At the United Nations CSW58, this alarming issue is being raised on the stages of parallel events. Dr. Shari Miles- Cohen from the American Psychological Association (APA) explained that the inappropriate portrayal of women and girls in the media is not only negatively affecting women, but is also contributing to the misperception many men have about the female gender.
According to APA, sexualisation occurs “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; or when a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.”
Not only are sexual images becoming more prevalent in the media, these images themselves are becoming almost pornographic in content. Advertisements for clothing, perfume, and even cars can be seen featuring women in degrading poses, and some ads have gone so far as to include disturbing images that reflect acts of violence and sexual assault against women.
In the United States, Dolce & Gabbana ran an advertisement that depicted a woman being pinned down in a compromising position by a man positioned on top of her, while three other men looked on. In Australia, Calvin Klein ran an advertisement that showed a young woman being held down and undressed by a man, while a second man held her head on to his lap. In Italy, Relish (an Italian fashion company) ran a series of billboards that depicted police officers groping two models.
The boundary lines have been further blurred by the blending of adult sexuality with messages targeting pre-pubescent girls. A few examples include Victoria’s Secret’s new “Bright, Young Things” line which targets pre-teens and young teenagers, and features thongs that read “Feeling Lucky?”; a Sketchers ad featuring Christina Aguilera in a schoolgirl outfit with her top unbuttoned, licking a lollipop; Bratz and Monster High dolls dressed in shockingly short miniskirts and tight shirts, some imprinted with words like “Babe”. Recently, Target released a controversial image of their Junior Hipster swimsuit that Today.com called “egregious photoshop shenanigans” depicting a model with proportions that are not physically possible.
This type of sexualisation can have severe consequences on the psyche of young girls. The Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls found that sexualisation has been linked with negative body image, low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. According to Women’s Health Queensland, “A particularly alarming consequence (of sexualisation) is self-sexualisation, where girls begin to treat themselves as a sexual object. The recent phenomenon of girls posting semi-nude and nude pictures of them on the internet is an extreme example of self-sexualisation.”
So what can we do about this growing negative phenomenon? Let’s begin by taking a stand and sharing our voices with the advertisers who thrive on the sexualization of women and girls. In this age of social media, when people feel it is important to share the most mundane details of their day, we can take advantage of a more altruistic use of these valuable platforms to let the media know that we will no longer stand for inappropriate and degrading portrayal of the female gender. We can also file a consumer complaint to show advertisers and retailers that we demand a higher standard.
At home, we need to be aware of the messages we are sending to our children. We can be careful to make wise decisions when buying clothes for girls, and teach them how to carry themselves with self-respect. It is our responsibility to remind our daughters that beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and colors. Equally as important, we must take the time to teach young men and boys about gender equality; we have the power to block inappropriate websites and television programs, and encourage dialogues with young men that focus on the achievements of their female peer and not on their physical appearance.
By standing together, we can change the way the media portrays women and girls, and make these offensively inappropriate messages a thing of the past.