Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Sexualization and the Trivialization of the Female

I was listening to Jonathan Storment yesterday, and something that he said really caught my attention. He talked about how we can spend hours of our day, months of our lives, pursuing things that in the end have no value. He gave the example of his obsession with the Rat on a Skateboard game on his smart phone. Jonathan was so proud when he figured out that he was ranked number 37 in the world on Rat on a Skateboard, but the more he thought about that, the more uncomfortable he became in realizing how much time he must have spent on this silly game. On thinking over our tendency to be distracted from worthy pursuits by trivial ones, Jonathan said, “The worst thing that you can do with your life is not to fail, but to succeed at something that doesn’t matter.”

This idea struck me as what really bothers me about the sexualization of girls and women.  At the heart of it, sexualization is about accepting the overall idea that women and girls are primarily objects for someone else’s enjoyment. Sexualization promotes that idea that the most valuable thing that women and girls can be is desired by men. It completely takes all of the other amazing things about female individuals out of the equation. To be clear, I am not talking about healthy sexuality here, I am talking about sexualization. If you are unclear on the difference between the two, please follow the links I’ve provided in this post and check out my series on Exploring Objectification. If you still feel unsure, feel free to ask for clarification. In a nutshell, sexualization involves seeing a person primarily as an object for someone else’s pleasure while healthy sexuality allows the active choice and mutual enjoyment of everyone involved in a sexual relationship. 

People have told me when I make this argument that, of course everybody realizes that women are complex creatures! But do they? Then why are women overwhelmingly depicted as decorative figures, with even lead female singers taking substantially sexier roles than their male counterparts in their own music videos? Then why do statistics from the Screen Actors Guild show that 69% of women cast in films and television are under 40? Why, when women 40 and over represented 45.2% of the US Population in 2008, they only represented 28% of characters in TV and film? Why do women feel the need to maintain a pornified, youthful appearance, attempting to fight and claw their way backward in age?

If women and girls really felt valued for their complexity as human beings, they would not feel the need to seek empowerment through major surgery, needles injecting foreign substances into their body or scanty clothing. They would not say, “I’m doing this for me” about these things, because they would not feel that to gain value they needed to  change their appearance. Women wouldn’t say they were doing these things to feel empowered because their power would not hinge on their sexuality. As a woman I don’t judge them, because I understand where they are coming from. I get it. This is why sexualization is so insidiously dangerous. It completely trivializes the female, hanging all of her worth on the thin, gossamer thread of her sexual appeal. Age, gain weight, have small breasts, be smarter than you are pretty, and bang, there goes your value.

We must work to help girls and women see that their value is so much more than what they look like. We must show our young girls examples of women who are valued for their wisdom, their kindness, their intelligence, their integrity. We must stop criticizing the bodies of women and girls and start praising the things that they do that really matter, from running a business to raising a family, from science to soccer, from kindness to genius, we must think and talk about women and girls differently. These are things that we can do in our own lives to make a difference. But we also must be willing to step up and speak out when we see women and girls being sexualized in the media. It’s time for those of us who care to push back on the idea that to be valuable as a female means to be physically appealing to men. There is so much more to women and girls than their sex appeal, and we must loudly and clearly call for a more complex representation of them in the media. Because, in the end, all of a woman’s sex appeal means nothing if she isn’t convinced that there’s more to her than that. In the end if all one accomplishes as a woman is being really sexy, forgetting to be kind, compassionate, authentic, and brilliant, then she misses out on being all that she can be. She misses out on making this world a better place. My friends, you were made to shine, to pour the light of your beautiful and authentic self out on this world. Believe in that, and move forward into your own beauty and complexity as a human being.

16 comments on “Sexualization and the Trivialization of the Female

  1. HUGE thank you, jennifer! :)

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      March 26, 2012

      Thank you, Vicki!

  2. Mary Lesniak
    March 26, 2012

    Such a marvelous post!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      March 26, 2012

      Thanks, Mary. I appreciate your thoughts.

  3. sweetmonkey
    March 26, 2012

    Amen! Thank you for writing this up so succinctly. :)

  4. Rosalinda
    March 26, 2012

    You are so RIGHT! Thanks for writing this… I’ll be sharing it!

  5. Ember
    March 26, 2012

    I cant stand people thinking they know whats best for the majority.
    (Im Not saying that you are wrong or right in what your talking about. Just that youre assuming what you are saying is whats best for everyone)
    Your way wouldnt work for me!
    I Dont want to ‘be all I can be’, I think Im already there with the way I am, trying to meet another persons standards, is an endless road of regret.
    I Dont want to make the world a better place, yea its great and all, but Im Not obligated, so quit making it seem like we are.
    I WANT to be sexualized by the media, I think being smexyful is what helps me ‘pour the light of your beautiful and authentic self out on this world’. Because my authentic self is Sexual! (but for those are different, then Obviously they like/do whatever else, its Not for everyone).

    There is Nothing wrong with being sexualized by the media IF you LIKE/WANT it.

    For someone who Does like it, being told ‘It completely takes all of the other amazing things about female individuals out of the equation’- Really?! So for someone who genuinely enjoys it, Im just a 2D thing with no depth?

    OR ‘In the end if all one accomplishes as a woman is being really sexy, forgetting to be kind, compassionate, authentic, and brilliant, then she misses out on being all that she can be’ WTF?! so if you are really sexy you cant be all those other things? Id like to think that no matter what you decide you LIKE to do, whether you want to be an escort or a stay at home mom, that you can still have a fulfilling life with all of the above. What if someone Doesnt have those things? Perhaps their personality doesnt permit, say compassion or whatever, but she relishes in her sexuality and is truly happy and at peace with herself. Is she still missing out on all that she can be? Shes not good enough? Does she needs help from people like you?

    You insult our ability to make our own decisions, as if we are children that need to be told what to do, not smart enough on our own, because we dont know the ‘best way’. Further insulting us by saying that our choices are Wrong, trying to make us question ourselves and what makes us happy. ‘Because, in the end, all of a woman’s sex appeal means nothing if she isn’t convinced that there’s more to her than that’ according to whose standards? Youre the better person? why because you dont strip, wear revealing clothing, whatever it is you dont like? Why do YOU get to decide whats best for ME? Why do you get to decide whats meaningful to ANY person?

    Just because I like things you Dont like, doesnt mean my way is limiting me as a person, preventing me from living life to the fullest, or holding me back in any way. Doing it Your way would do that to me. To each their own.

    Insulting women who like to be sexual, while trying to get a point across, is terrible. Women should be able to choose what they want to do, whatever makes them happy, without ANYONE telling them its wrong. We dont need to live our lives by anyone standards but our own.

    Youd be better off writing Specifically about women who do NOT want to be sexualized by the media (or whatever else), but do it anyway, because its expected of them. THATS the problem we need to look at and address. Not that sexualized women are bad. Thats too broad and I refuse to let you speak on my behalf (as a woman who Likes being sexualized). Stop casting your net so far or youll bring in the sharks.

    • Ember
      March 26, 2012

      btw children are another story, concerns of what they see or what impacts them Is important etc. It Is important that they dont feel obligated or expected to do something they dont really want, so yes, ensuring that the role models they are exposed to, meet the things you said, is a good point. But thats for the parents to figure out and control and explain. If they cant do that, they shouldnt have children.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      March 27, 2012

      Hi Ember. It seems to me that you are confusing my remarks, which are focused on sexualization, with views on healthy sexuality. According to the American Psychological Association’s definition, sexualization is the depiction or treatment of a person as if their primary purpose is to be the object of someone else’s sexual pleasure, with no complexity assumed about the nature of the person who is the object. That is a one-dimensional view of the female as only sex object, by definition. That is a far cry from healthy sexuality that involves acting as an active agent to choose one’s behaviors with a focus on mutual pleasure and ownership of the exchange by the people involved in a sexual relationship or act. The first considers the pleasure of only the subject of the exchange, while the second provides room for all. For more on sexualization, feel free to follow the link I provided in the original post. For more on objectification, which flows from sexualization, feel free to read the Exploring Objectification series on this blog.

      It is not my opinion that to be continually treated as a sexual object and to see oneself primarily as a sexual object is unhealthy. It is a fact supported by research that self-objectification leads to emotional and behavioral difficulties, such as depression and disordered eating. Of course people choose all the time to follow behavioral paths that lead to unhealthy emotional consequences, but they have the right to know that there is a more effective path to choose.

      It is my worldview, clearly stated in the purpose of this blog, that we as people can make this world a better place. There are those who don’t want to think about making the world better. But if everyone took that position then those who fought for civil rights for minorities, women’s right to vote, get an education, and own property, and the end of child labor would have instead sat back and let those things continue. I choose to live my life believing that what I do on this earth matters, that I can make the world better in big and small ways everyday. If you don’t want to hear that, the great thing is that reading this blog is entirely voluntary, so feel free not to read it.

  6. J.T. Anderson
    March 27, 2012

    I feel like you crawled into my thoughts and displayed them perfectly to the world….

  7. Laurel's Reflections
    April 12, 2012

    Thank you so much for a great post that raises such important points in an accessible way.

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  9. K.P.
    April 22, 2012

    And it’s not just the media that does this to women. The Clothing Industry does this in everything from underwear to work clothes to shoes. Working women aren’t given a choice for durable, well-made clothes that are comfortable and functional. Women’s business clothing is almost always in a polyester / acetate / rayon / plastic-of-choice fabric. Men’s business clothing features predominantly cotton or wool blend fabrics. Men’s business clothing is usually understated, comfortable and practical: loosen a tie, kick off your shoes, and relax for the rest of the evening in front of the television. Women’s business clothing may be in subdued colors, but the styles are eye catching, and not something one would relax in at home.

    Have you ever found a really comfortable pair of undies that don’t eventually lead to a wedgie? Where are women’s boxer underwear? And don’t get me started on bras!

    In the hands-on-trades… Women must buy men’s clothes to be practical. Even EMT pants made specifically for women are cut with ‘low rise waist’ Nobody wants to see a man’s ‘plumber’s crack’… why is it okay to make work pants that force one on a woman? A woman’s thermal shirt doesn’t need a “V neck” – the chest and neck need to be covered in the winter to maintain warmth!

    As for shoes… if they aren’t cutting off your circulation in the name of looks, then they fall apart after 6 months or less of wear. Try buying a “work boot” in women’s sizes. When you finally find one it will either A) have some ridiculous heel on it that makes it uncomfortable for all day wear, or B) last half to a third of the time a comparable man’s boot will last.

    Objectification is pervasive in all spectrums of our lives. There’s nothing wrong with being sexy and wanting to attract attention. But it shouldn’t be the ONLY thing we are allowed to do by not just the media’s social standards, but by the world at large too.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      April 22, 2012

      Yogis points about clothing! I am sick to death of all the low rise jeans for little girls, too! Trying to buy my 8 year old jeans that she can run, play, and sit on the floor is an exercise in futility! I have found that Lands End carries girls jeans that aren’t low rise. But that’s been the only place I can find them.

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