Girls receive so many messages telling them to prove their hotness through media, and these messages are reinforced by peers and rarely combated by parents. Youth grow up marinating in sexualized imagery without even being conscious of it. Sexualization is when you take something that is not overtly sexual and you make it sexy. For example, we do this a lot with food: Carls Jr. commercials, anyone? And we certainly do this with girls through making their toys and clothes sexy but not boys’. Gendered Halloween costumes are a perfect example of our sexualization of girls. It is the fascination with the combination of innocence, purity and sex that is downright dangerous because it promotes the sexualization of girls, which has been shown to increase approval attitudes about sexual abuse. So why are we surprised when teen girls take sexy selfies with food, dress, anything really? They are making sense of their sexual identity through the cultural examples that surround them.
In the context of a digital world where boys can objectify girls by watching pornography on their mobile phones in class, what’s a girl to do? Well, some unconsciously decide “If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.” Then they begin a process of self-objectification. Self-objectification is the act of treating yourself as an object instead of a subject. Meaning, you break yourself down into physical pieces to scrutinize instead of not worrying about your thighs because they are just as much ‘you’ as your sense of humor is. Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the feeling of ‘wantedness’ or sexual attractiveness, but the need for it can cross a line.
Not surprisingly, a lot of girls become obsessed with their social media accounts, as this can be an avenue for proving their hotness through the number of likes, followers, and requests for “nudes.” Yet, this kind of obsession can also be a sign of self-objectification.
Research shows that self-objectification is linked to decreased sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, sexual safety, and increased disordered eating, depression and anxiety. Self-objectification is becoming increasingly more pervasive, making it harder for girls to determine if they are actually expressing their sexuality by “being sexual” instead of just putting on a show for boys by “acting sexual."
As adults, we typically respond to sexting scandals or overtly sexualized social media accounts, by blaming girls for not having self-respect. When I do educational seminars about sex and technology with parents and teachers, I overwhelmingly hear stories of “sexting scandals.” Usually followed by a, “Why would she send a nude photo of herself in the first place? Something must be wrong with her.”
The reason girls sext and post sexy pictures of themselves online is because they do not have as much power to claim sexual entitlement in our culture as men do. They first have to gain approval from men that they are worthy of sex through men acknowledging that they are legitimately hot. Whereas boys can choose to send a nude or not, neither choice will affect their reputation too much. So, what do we do? We blame girls for playing the game that we do very little to change.
by Dr. Megan Maas, Professor and researcher at Michigan State and member of the Girlology Expert Panel
Stay tuned for Dr. Maas’ next installment where she’ll discuss the things we can do to prevent distressing or damaging outcomes from their social media use, particularly as it applies to their emerging sexuality.
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Tolman, D. L. (2005). Dilemmasof desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Harvard: University Press. American Psychological Association, T. F. O. T. S. O. G. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. APA Talk Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ward, L. M. (2016). Media and sexualization: State of empirical research, 1995–2015. The Journal of Sex Research, 53, 560-577.