Parent, Teacher, Author
This question was brought forward very strongly to me when my then nine-year-old daughter, after having silently observed several billboards and ads in public places featuring semi-clothed women, asked me, “Why are women’s bodies used as posters to sell stuff?” I asked her what she meant, and she said, “It’s like companies put what they want to sell out there and put a woman’s body by it, even if it has nothing to do with her. They use her body to sell their stuff.”
This was an astute and disturbing observation, because it points out the fact that often times women are presented in the media as objects rather than as agents. What do I mean by that? Objects are things that serve the purposes of others, while agents are active participants who advance their own agendas. The view of women as objects is very passive and doesn’t have anything to do with what the woman herself wants or needs. The view of women as agents is active and focuses on her own goals.
In two studies, Dr. Elizabeth Daniels has investigated how boys and girls respond to sexualized images of female athletes compared to athletes pictured performing in their chosen sport.
Dr. Daniels wanted to see if adolescent girls and college women would tend to look at themselves first as objects of desire after viewing the sexualized pictures of female athletes as compared to viewing a female athlete playing a sport.
In another study, she wanted to see if adolescent boys focused on different qualities of female athletes depending on if they were viewing sexualized, objectifying or performance-oriented photos.
There has been some hope expressed by many that the depiction of female athletes in popular media can help girls and boys see female bodies from a different perspective, less objectification and more agency. Meaning, instead of viewing girls and women primarily as objects of desire, we can see them as has having strong, healthy bodies that are used to accomplish a goal for themselves, such as playing a sport.
Research has shown that girls who are actively involved athletes tend to be less likely to engage in risk sexual behaviors. In my own work, I’ve found that adolescent girls who play sports do tend to have more body confidence and express a stronger ability to see themselves as agents in their physical relationships.
But, a lot of female athletes are also highly sexualized in the media, from the Sports Illustrated’s “International Athletes” section of their swimsuit addition to Danica Patrick’s Go Daddy images. Dr. Daniels says in her 2009 article,
In other words, they take perfect examples of women who are acting as agents, and objectify them.
In both of the studies I mentioned above, it was found that adolescent girls and boys who view sexualized images of female athletes are more likely to then reflect objectified views of women. For the girls, this meant that they viewed themselves as objects of another’s desire. For boys, this meant that instead of focusing on the athlete’s abilities and strength, they focused on her as a sexual object.
So how do adults and adolescents deal with this idea of girls and women presented as objects? Here are some ideas:
What I’m advocating is a kind of media “show and tell” with both younger children and adolescents. Find age appropriate ways to open up the conversation about what it means to be treated as an object and an agent. As we work to increase the media literacy of children and adolescents, these kinds of conversations are vital.
Daniels, E.A. & Wartena, H. (2011). Athlete or Sex Symbol: What Boys Think of Media Representations of Female Athletes. Sex Roles, DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9959-7
Daniels, E.A. (2009). Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes : How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women. Journal of Adolescent Research 24: 399 DOI: 10.1177/0743558409336748