Being Female (updated version)

September 7, 2014 at 4:45 am (Uncategorized)

Last Tuesday I stood in line at a pharmacy next to a man with a giant tattoo of a naked girl on his arm. Her face and body looked like a prepubescent tween, but she had giant breasts and angel wings. Her posed screamed “senior picture” not “Porn star.” It was not a piece of fine art. It looked like something a very talented 10 year old would draw of herself if she was imagining what she’d look when she grew to be as big as her mom and got implants.  If the girl in the tattoo had had clothes on, I would have assumed it was a tribute to they guy’s deceased daughter.

I considered asking the man about his tattoo, (In my head it went like this: Sir, why do you have a naked child with giant boobs and angel wings on your arm, and how come you feel it is alright to have that on display every where you go in front of every person you are around no matter their age?) but I was intimidated by his size and appearance and how he might react to me. Plus there was a woman with three young children also in line, and I worried about what the kids might hear.  I watched as the oldest child, a girl of around 5, studied the man’s tattoo, and I wondered what she was thinking.  While some people were busy that day shaming or defending celebrity women for taking naked photos that were subsequently stolen and circulated through social media, this guy gets to walk around all day every day with his giant naked woman/child for all to see. I doubt very many people express their opinion about it.

The tattoo sums up so much of the crazy messages our young girls are sold this day in age: Be an angel and a vixen. Be sexy but innocent. Be an accessory for a man. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, in (R)eality girls a primed to be objects of sexual desire from the the time they can pick something out at the store. It’s so common, so normal, so ingrained in our culture that the voices of people trying to stand against age compression and the sexualization of childhood get lost in the crowd.

Here are just a few examples of what psychologists, feminists, and girls have to say about what is expected of our daughters this day in age:

They need to be ambitious yet subdued, athletic yet feminine, intelligent yet flirty, and hardworking yet fun-the whole gamut of externally driven ideals. (MPG,766)

 

Your littlest girls are “perfect little angels”, sometimes with a sassy twist; your elementary school girls are boy-crazy tweens, ready to be sold a version of mini-teendom…your middle school  girls are full-fledged teenagers or at least teenage wannabes eager to conform  to that CosmoGirl! lifetstyle. Your high school girls are sold an identity story of the sexually free model-diva-rock star the younger girls are supposed to look up to. (PG 119)

 

“…You’re either for the boys or one of the boys. To be for the boys, you look good for them, you perform sex acts for them , and you support them as friends and girlfriends. To be one of the boys is to be outspoken hard girl who doesn’t take crap from anyone.. Remember that feisty girl you knew in kindergarten? the one who was independent and could think for herself? a leader? Well this image his been co-opted and sold to girls as a male image. The fact that it’s a male image is betrayed in the way these  girls put down other girls, show shame about things that are associated with feminine things, and align themselves with boys. (PG266)

 

The pressure on young women to attain an ideal (and impossible) image of beauty is becoming steadily worse. Several studies have found that young women today feel tremendous pressure to be *perfect*. They feel that have to have perfect hair, skin, and clothes and also to be extremely thin-as well as to be “hot” and sexy and to excel academically. They also feel they mustn’t be perceived as trying too hard, but must create an illusion of *effortless perfections*. (SSSS2404)

 

Girls become “female impersonators” who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Vibrant, confident girls become shy, doubting young women. Girls stop thinking, “Who am I?” What do I want? and start thinking, “What must I do to please others.” (RO232)

 

Increasingly women have been sexualized and objectified, their bodies marketed to sell tractors and toothpaste. Soft and hard core pornography are everywhere. Sexual and physical  assaults on girls  are at an all-time high. Now girls are more vulnerable and fearful, more likely to have been traumatized and less free to roam alone. This combination of old stress and new is poison for our young women. (RO340)

 

“As never before in human history, a huge proportion of what children learn comes not from hands-on interactions with people and things, but from secondhand experiences with media and popular culture.” (SSSS 526) As a woman and a mother of daughters, what infuriates me the most is how society tells little girl that they can be and do anything they want to be yet the marketing and media almost always offer predictable pigeon holes to choose from: pretty pink princesses, cute little shoppers, tweens who get to pretend to be teenagers and hot, sexy in the prime of their lives teens.  Each stage of growing up is packaged and sold as if they were independent choices the girls are making on their own. Imagine how much money must be being spent every day to help girls (and women) look powerful by conforming to stereotyped images.

Older women are influenced by all the same messages as well. Show me a woman under 40 who truly and honestly loves and respects her body and doesn’t feel like she’s ugly if she doesn’t conform to the current opinions on beauty.  Ask her what it took to get to that place. What products she used to buy or diets she used to try. I’ll wager that if you find this woman, she either wasn’t raised in America or she has completed a lot of difficult personal work to get to that place.

One of the trends I’ve noticed on Facebook is of women, almost always under 40, posting pictures of themselves nearly naked (underwear, bikini, you get the idea), showing off their abs or the ass they squat for every day. Even presentations of true physical strength and fitness are often photographed in very little clothing. Why? I believe that to a great extent, women, especially those who graduated from the mid-nineties on, are simply accustomed to this as normal female behavior. It’s a message they saw in the media that has gained strength over the years. They’ve learned that being sexy and thin and beautiful-wait, make that hott- are super important. Mary Pipher wrote Reviving Ophelia in the 90’s. It is based on her experience with girls as a psychologist. Check out her video. The Youtube date is 2006 and the quality shows that it is dated. In my opinion, the fact that it is dated makes it more relevant to the choices young women make now because it shows the media culture they were growing up in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrRtJY28ps8

(For more videos that explore the sexualization of women in advertising, please take the time to watch Jean Kilbourn’s “Killing us Softly” series.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=killing+us+softly+4+jean+kilbourne+full+video)

Very rarely do I see an older woman post a picture that makes me think “put some clothes on” and “stop fishing for compliments on your hott body. You are way more important that that.”  We are all sexual beings. The difference I see between what older women share and younger women share is that what older women generally reserve for a lover or close girlfriends younger women actively choose to post for public consumption. Another trend I’ve noticed is woman claiming they choose striptease, pinup fashion, burlesque and other traditionally sex object type displays as expressions of personal power. Comments like “I have the power because I choose when, where, and how much of my clothes I take off” justify partaking in objectifying roles, but the truth is that these woman are still choosing the same old pigeon holes they were groomed for anyway. I often wonder, “Is sexy the newest form of power or the oldest?”  But, just like I’m not surprised that women’s naked photos get stolen, I’m also not surprised that girls offer themselves up in such ways.

When I start thinking about these types of choices my brain gets flooded with questions. Is it healthier now because the women feel like they have more freedom and choice even though they are choosing to be objects for other people’s consumption, sexual gratification or sexual entertainment? Do I really need to care about the choices adult woman make? Why? How do I talk to my child about the woman in that seductive pole dance video that turned up accidentally when I was looking for circus routines? What goes through my daughter’s head when she happens to be near me while I scroll through Facebook and a provocative picture of someone she knows turns up and the flood of comments about how hott that person is, how great she looks, how lucky her boyfriend/husband is, how this commenter wishes she had such an amazing body and that commenter asks about what she eats and how much she works out? Do I just act like it’s normal and no big deal, or is that supporting the culture that says women’s bodies are for the enjoyment of others? If younger women were more body confident, if depressions rates among girls were decreasing, if eating disorders were declining, if suicide/attempted suicide rates were dropping, if sexual abuse and rape were only things we read about in history books, I’d probably say that all this marketing and all of this desire for a sexy hott body that can be shown off to the public is a good thing. Sadly, here are some statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Conditions. Pay special attention to the ages:

• 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.”5
• 86% report onset of eating disorder by age 20; 43% report onset between ages of 16 and 20.6
• Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.7
• 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.8
• 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.3
• The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.4

I am raising girls. I have struggled with my own body image issues and still do. I am not opposed to my daughter’s learning about sexuality. It’s sexualization that I have  problem with.

According to the American Psychological Association, sexualization has to do with treating other people as “objects of sexual desire…as things rather than as people with legitimate sexual feelings of their own.”

When people are sexualized, their value comes primarily from their sex appeal, which is equated with physical attractiveness. This is especially damaging and “problematic to children who are developing their sense of themselves as sexual beings. (SSSS104)

As the book So Sexy So Soon goes on to explain, our media saturated culture helps children develop a picture of what sexual behavior and relationships look like long before they understand the meaning of sex and sexual relationships. Hopefully kids witness loving, affectionate, trusting relationships and have a nurturing and open parent who is able to answer questions and gracefully bring up conversations kids are too shy to start. The problem isn’t that sex is portrayed in the media. The problem is that “sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting…The expolittion of our children’s sexuality is in many ways designed to promote consumerism, not just in childhood but throughout their lives. (SSSS 133)

One of my facebook friends posted this picture the other day and it really hit home. I’ve been there, and I have a sweet, funny, intelligent little girl at home who is starting to wonder why she is bigger than the rest of the kids her age. I hope that this thought never, ever crosses her mind. It kills me to think about it, but I know about reality.

 

cut

How many girls have wanted to slice away the parts of their bodies that feel unacceptable?  Anxiety and depression related to body image, eating disorders, self mutilation and self hate are still normal parts of the female condition. The average age in which girls start to experience body hatred is getting younger but the common image being marketed to girls revolves around looking good for boys. Becoming an object of desire seems to be the ultimate goal despite the fact that it is literally and figuratively killing our girls.

According to the CDC one in five women report being raped sometime in their lives. ONE IN FIVE. That statistic is 1 in 71 for men. I bet every woman I know has experienced some kind of verbal or physical sexual harassment. We know what it’s like yet the culture that is grooming our girls (and our boys!) seems normal and/or impossible to change.

It’s time to educate our girls. If media literacy isn’t being addressed at school then we better address it at home. Time is ticking and our daughters are growing up.

Here is a list of the books I’ve read related to the subject of today’s post. Educate yourself so you can educate your daughters.

Packaging Girlhood by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown

Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher

The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons

So Sexy So Soon, Diane Levine and Jean Kilbourne

The Myth of the Perfect Girl, Ana Homayoun

Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein

Mothering and Daughtering, Si and Eliza Reynolds

You’d be so Pretty If, Dara Chadwick

 

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