Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Enlightened Sexism: Why power through sexuality is bad for girls and women

In my last post, Steubenville & Sexualization,  I mentioned my frustration with high-powered women like Cameron Diaz saying things like, “Women want to be objectified.” The truth is, there are girls and women who have bought into the belief that their social power comes from their sex appeal. They have bought into the belief that to make themselves into the object of male desire is a fun and exciting thing. But what they don’t know is that when this idea becomes a reality, it is far from empowering.

Susan J. Douglas reframes what has previously been called Postfeminism as Enlightened Sexism. In Douglas’ definition, enlightened sexism “insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved, so now it’s okay, even amusing to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.”

This point of view says to women that through the use of their bodies and sex appeal, they gain true power. On the surface, it looks like feminism by saying, “You can have power!” but spurns equality by reducing female power to sexuality.

You may be thinking, “But it’s all in good fun! What’s the harm in a girl or woman using her body to experience her power?” In fact, there are many who do argue that this type of self-objectification, of purposefully putting oneself on display for others to view and desire, is empowering. And in the moment there is a feeling of power, of being desired and stirring feelings within others.

But in the long run, there is a strong body of research that clearly shows that self-objectification is psychologically unhealthy. In fact, self-objectification has been linked to disordered eating both in college women and adolescent girls (Tiggemann & Slater, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2002), to depression in both age groups (Teggemann & Kuring, 2004; Grabe, Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007; Meuklenkamp & Saris-Baglama, 2002), and to risk for self-harm (Meuklenkamp, Swanson, & Brausch, 2005).

In the study by Grabe and her colleagues, a link was found between self-objectification and depression for girls as young as 11 years of age. Self-objectification has also been shown to have a relationship with lowered cognitive and academic functioning in women and girls (Gay & Castano, 2010). Not so innocent is it? Not so much fun after all. In fact, self-objectification leads to some series emotional difficulties.

A high school friend of mine told me that she felt angry and confused when she want to a Halloween party and saw that some of the other girls there were objectifying themselves. She doesn’t understand why the world around her promotes this self-objectifying behavior as popular and fun and, as she said, “almost creates a hunger for it.” She sees the “power” that these girls seem to gain from exploiting their own sexuality, and she doesn’t want to do that herself. But she’s also frustrated by it.

This girl is seen as a leader on her high school campus for her integrity, strong character, and caring. In fact, she has started multiple programs both at her school and in her community to help those in need and speaks at every school in the district at assemblies about community service and volunteerism. She is a student athlete who strives for success while trying to be fair, ethical, and a good sport.  This amazing girl told her mother that after being at the party, she felt sad that those things aren’t valued and desired by others the way that flaunting ones body is.

Girls are getting some very contradictory messages about where their value lies and what they can do to gain power. We say, “You can do it all” and media and marketers add, “As long as you’re sexy while doing it!”

We must start talking about these conflicting messages openly with the kids in our lives. We have got to speak up and tell young girls that they do NOT have to use their bodies to gain social power, and we need to stand up to media and marketing campaigns that promote the idea that they do. Self-objectification is not healthy for girls and women, and it is high time that all caring adults take a stand against the sexualized views that tell girls that their power and value can only be found in their sex appeal. Girls are so much more than eye candy, let’s start treating them that way.

Douglas, Susan J. (2010). Enlightened Sexism: The seductive message that feminism’s work is done. Times Books: New York.

Gay, R.K. & Castano, E. (2010). My body or my mind: The impact of state and trait objectification on women’s cognitive resources. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 695-703.

Grabe, S., Hyde, J.S., & Lindberg, S.M. (2007). Body objectification and depression in adolescents: the role of gender, shame, and rumination. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 164–175.

Meuklenkamp, J.J. & Saris-Baglama, R.N. (2002). Self-objectification and its psychological outcome for college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 371-379.

Mueklenkamp, J.J.,  Swanson, J.D. & Brausch, A.M. (2005). Self -objectification, risk taking, and self-harm in college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 24-32.

Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2002). A test of Objectification Theory in adolescent girls. Sex Roles, 46, 343349.

Tiggemann, M., & Kuring, J. K. (2004). The role of body objectification in disordered eating and depressed mood. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 43, 299311.

Tiggemann, M.,&Slater, A. (2001). A test of objectification theory in former dancers and non-dancers. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 5764.

One comment on “Enlightened Sexism: Why power through sexuality is bad for girls and women

  1. Pingback: Objectifying women « Real Rest is the Best

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