Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Does this mini-skirt make me look stupid?: Sexualized media and Female Achievement

I read this article from the Daily Mail in the UK with interest. In a recent speech, the president of a women’s college in the UK said that young women today are less confident in their intellectual abilities than they were 40 years ago when she was a student. Her theory is that this is because of the celebrity culture that focuses so heavily on females’ physical appearance. One of the interesting things that Dame Patricia Hodgson says is that the young women that she works with need new role models. With the culture of celebrity that promotes a woman’s power as her ability to attract men, these young, bright women are often left seeking that power, rather than looking to their intellect and character as sources of power. Hodgson says that if they had more female role models who were highly successful politicians, businesswomen, philanthropists, authors, educators, etc., then perhaps they would learn to view attributes other than physical appearance as important.

And, Dame Patricia is right. The research tells us that girls who are exposed more often to sexualized media depictions of women tend to perform poorly academically. After heavy exposure to this type of media, young women will often indicate that certain career options, such as those in the maths and sciences, are not in their reach.  Mind you, before seeing the media, many had said they might want to pursue those same careers. In other studies, directly after exposure to this type of media, college aged students performed more poorly on academic tests than they had previously! Seriously, there is a direct connection with how young women view their academic and intellectual abilities and their exposure to sexualized media.

So Dame Patricia makes a good point! When we look at the women who are in the limelight in our culture, and in many others, they are often celebrities whose success is highly connected to their physical appearance. So much so, that many, even at a young age, undergo plastic surgery in order to enhance their looks. What if, instead of Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus, our young women were being exposed to the work of Toni Morrison, Meg Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, and Melinda Gates? What if, instead of constantly looking at who’s been surgically enhanced or broken up with their boyfriends/husbands, we heard about who wrote a great novel, came up with a scientific break through, or helped those in need? I believe that the culture of celebrity is powerful, and that it does not strengthen our young people.

There are amazing examples of strong and successful women out there that need to be shared more actively with our young people. Let’s start sharing those stories both of women we know personally and those whose good works we know. Our children and adolescents need to hear those stories, to show them that success comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages. But most of all, it comes with integrity and pursuing ones strengths, not with the vain seeking after of physical perfection.

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