The sexualizing of women and girls is, according to many, pervasive in Western culture. Even as women gain footholds in many fields of employment, they are increasingly portrayed in the media in ways that emphasize their sexuality. Indeed, many mall store chains offer highly sexualized women’s attire, from Victoria’s Secret to Charlotte Russe, to take just two examples. The most stylish options for girls and young women include push-up bras, low-cut tank tops, ultra short shorts, sequined dresses, stilettos with heavy leather straps, and sweat pants that say “Pink” or “Juicy” across the back. Women see other women wearing these clothes, especially when those women are perfectly-endowed young adult female models.
Some might argue that the wearing of these highly sexualized clothes is a form of post-feminist self-expression or a Circe-like way to exert power over men. Yet, the question remains about whether by presenting themselves in a stereotypically sexualized manner, women are actually subjugating themselves even more to a male-dominated society.
From a practical standpoint, sexy women are seen as less competent at work (e.g. Wookey et al., 2009). Because the feminine stereotype is of someone who is weak, gullible, dependent, and emotional, by wearing overtly sexualized clothes, a woman undercuts her ability to be taken seriously, particularly by men.
Women may sexualize their appearance as a way not only to conform to feminine stereotypes, but also to neutralize the potential threat they feel they may present to men. Therefore, they play up their feminine attributes, hiding their competence behind short skirts and high heels.
Whatever the cause, the fact of the matter is that the sexualized images of women in the media are highly prevalent. Young women, seeking to fit in by looking stylish, adopt these images without giving the decision serious thought. The difficulty can come when they struggle reconcile their inner and outer selves. They may feel that they are as competent, ambitious, and deserving as men, but don the attire of the women these men might want to date, rather than work with. Ultimately, this may cause them to feel, if not be, less satisfied with themselves.
A team of social psychologists headed by University of Mary Washington’s Mariam Liss (2011) wanted to find out whether women feel more empowered or more oppressed by their identification with a sexualized image. On the side of empowerment, would women "embrac[e] the thong” and find strength in being “trashy.” Or, on the side of oppression, are women simply being co-opted by the Victoria’s Secrets of the consumer world who want to cash in on the young (or even older) girl’s attraction to all things glittery? If women felt empowered by seeing themselves as sexy, they should identify with fewer sexist attitudes about women, feel better about their bodies, and be less concerned about maintaining the ideal feminine body shape. If they feel oppressed the more they identify with the sexualized image, they should feel less satisfied with their bodies and more likely to express conventional attitudes toward women.
To gather data on these two opposing arguments, Liss and her colleagues devised an 8-item test measuring women’s enjoyment of their sexualization. These items are as follows (each is rated on a 6-point scale agree-disagree). Take the test and see how you score (if you're a man, take it as if you were a woman you know well). I'll talk about the meaning of your score later.
Through a series of validational studies, Liss and team investigated the relationship between enjoyment of sexualization and a variety of related feelings and beliefs. Their results clearly supported the "oppression" argument. Women who scored high on enjoyment of sexualization were more likely to agree with sexist views of women. They endorsed more statements reflecting overt or hostile sexism (such as “There are many jobs in which men should be given preference over women in being hired or promoted”). In addition, they also were more likely to agree with statements reflecting benevolent sexism, which also takes a stereotyped view of women, but in a way that seems positive (“women should be cherished and protected by men”). The women who reported that they enjoyed the positive attention of men for their appearance were also more likely to view their own bodies as “objects,” to base their self-esteem on how they look, to engage in self-sexualizing behaviors (such as pole dancing), and to worry about their appearance during the day and feel ashamed about themselves when their appearance didn’t measure up to some standard view of female beauty. These are hardly a set of positive attributes.
Clearly, women who state that they believe sexualization to be something they enjoy are preoccupied with how they look to the point of distraction. In addition, the women who stated that they enjoyed their sexualization were more likely to have negative eating attitudes, and therefore be more at risk of developing an eating disorder. Regarding self-esteem, women who scored high on the enjoyment of sexualization scale stated that they felt better about themselves.
You might wonder what’s so oppressing about a woman’s enjoying her sexualization or being the recipient of the benevolent form of sexism. Isn’t it flattering to have a man’s attention, and nice to be treated “like a lady?” The problem, according to Liss and her colleagues, is two-fold. On the one hand, if a woman fits the narrow definition of how a sexualized woman looks in terms of attractiveness and body shape, then she should be happier if this is a valued set of attributes. However, in reality, few women actually do look like Victoria’s Secrets models (if even their non photoshopped bodies even do). They may also put themselves at risk for a precipitous drop in self-esteem should the attention they crave and enjoy goes away.
At the societal level, when women seek to fit within the stereotyped view of the female sex, they perpetuate the status quo of gender dynamics. The male-female income earning gap, disparities in opportunities, and media portrayals of women as weak and dependent, according to some, go hand in hand. The authors conclude that, on this basis, “the results confirm the fears of critics of ‘raunch culture’ and those who are concerned that media representations of women who display their sexuality as a form of freedom and power are harmful.” Women who enjoy their sexualization might state that it’s empowering, but the inner experience itself isn’t all that positive. These women also may be placing themselves at greater risk of sexual harassment, as the data suggested that women who enjoy sexualization report higher levels of unwanted sexual attention.
To help put the findings in perspective in your own life, let's look at your score (or that of women you know). If you feel that you agree strongly with all or most of these, try to examine where your feelings come from. Do you honestly enjoy the attention of men and find it satisfying to display your sexuality, or do you feel that your attitudes may reflect the images you see in the media? The next time you take that walk down the mall aisle, see if you can relate your own urges to go into particular stores to your own desire to look and feel sexy or whether you’re responding to that idealized image of the woman that their store models and ads portray. The next time you’re about to go into a business meeting, interview, or school classroom, stop and think about what’s going through your mind. Are you more worried about whether your hair and makeup look good or are you thinking about what you will say? When you’re with men, do you behave very differently than you do when you’re with women?
Enjoying your sexuality is a positive psychological attribute. The research by Liss shows the dangers of women feeling manipulated by media images to conform to a stereotype of the idealized sexy young woman. By deciding on your own identity and how you wish to define yourself, independently of these influences, you’ll enjoy not only your sexuality, but your body and your mind.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., & Ramsey, L. R. (2011). Empowering or oppressing? Development and exploration of the Enjoyment of Sexualization Scale. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(1), 55-68. doi:10.1177/0146167210386119
Wookey, M. L., Graves, N. A., & Butler, J. (2009). Effects of a sexy appearance on perceived competence of women. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 149(1), 116-118. doi:10.3200/SOCP.149.1.116-118