Santa, I want Sex Appeal for Christmas

by Grace-Emily Kelsey

So, my cousin is turning 10 soon and I’m thinking about a double digits birthday present, it should be really special. How about a pink glittery thong with the words ‘wink wink’ on what little material is cradling her butt cheeks?  What about that? Sounds like a good idea, right? Hopefully, whilst her arse is learning the words ‘come and get it’, it can also be taught ‘piss off’, ‘don’t come any closer’ and ‘help, society is oversexualising me, and I don’t know what to do’. Is there enough room on the butt for that?

The world is creating ‘sexy minx’ products for children in their single digits, and I think we should all get a little slap in the face, as a warm up for the big slap in the face we really need.

Are we oversexualising our young girls? Or am I just annoyed, that as a child my behind missed the opportunity to scream ‘wild thang’, and now I’m converting my deep set jealously into this? Nah. My butt could describe the overarching plot of Doctor Who vs the Daleks, and frankly that’s chill enough for me.

The premise of not oversexualising young girls is not averse to sex positive feminism. Sex positivity is the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and categorically consensual, then it is a positive thing. Whereas the American Psychology Association explains that sexualisation or over-sexualisation occurs when:

  • A person’s value is only measured by their sex appeal

  • A person is being held to a standard that equates a narrowly defined idea of physical beauty with sexiness

  • Someone is being seen less as a person and more as an object of somebody else’s sexual pleasure

  • Sexuality is inappropriately being imposed upon a person.

The APA makes it clear that not all four indicators need to be present for it to be seen as sexualisation, even one is enough. Anyone can be sexualised, but children are having this sexualisation imposed upon them by adults, and it is a form of child abuse, whilst in a wider scope the blasé reaction of the public towards this is softening our attitudes towards non-physical child abuse in general. The more we sexualise young girls, the less we are able to see them as genuinely interesting young women with autonomous control over their bodies, ideas and lives.

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Sexualisation is especially problematic when it happens to young people, as it comes during the time when they are starting to develop an identity for themselves as a sexual being. When lots of advertisements are making fully grown women look like toddlers or school children in order to portray them as sexy, it starts to blur the line between girlhood and womanhood. Children on average interact with various media sources for 6 hours and 32 minutes a day (that extra two mins is the real back breaker), and it is the media that is saturated with oversexualised images of women. This means that children spend a massive amount of time learning that they are sexual objects. Pigtails, school skirts, baby freckles as costume takes the innocence of youth into the sexy sphere, thus taking those of that age into the sexy sphere too. The more normalised ‘sexy schoolgirl’ Halloween costumes are, the more acceptable it becomes to sexualise school girls. This can lead to girls oversexualising themselves, when they learn that sexualised behaviour and sexualised appearance is rewarded and endorsed by society. Getting drawn into self-sexualisation at a young age means many girls skip the period of self-discovery and exploration, never finding out what makes them happy, and jump straight to becoming the person that they think will best please others.

Younger girls develop their sense of identity by emulating older women and girls they see in real life and in the media, learning acceptable and profitable ways to exist in our culture from them. Unfortunately, the way our media sexualises young girls can torment this period of growth. Yet, we must appreciate the development process, and know that what is appropriate for young girls changes rapidly from the ages of 10 to 18. Trying to combat over-sexualisation does not mean patronising or belittling young girls’ sexual journey – it simply means giving them back control.

A recent study showed that 15% of the music voted most popular with young teens contains sexually degrading lyrics towards women, with 85% of the most popular R&B songs also containing sexually degrading lyrics, with country music not far behind. The film industry also mistreated young women, who are on screen 4 times more than young men, but only actually make up 28% of the cast, with lots of them having little or no lines. This subtly shows how women are there to please the male gaze, and not to be main protagonists. Women are the beautiful accessories and men are the ones deemed interesting enough to actually make films about. The shocking underappreciation of young women on screen leads to a lack of diversity in how they are portrayed, there is no broad spectrum of young women to identify with, and no young women learning to be confident and self-empowered regarding her sexuality to look up to and learn from.

There is also a shocking number of magazines aimed at young teens which teach you not just how to look sexy, but how to look sexy in a way that boys will like. Not only is this ludicrously hetero-normative, but it’s also teaching them that they should dress to impress others, not to make themselves happy. This preaching of ways to make men happy with your appearance is such a phenomenon it has been given a name: Costuming for Seduction. So many young girls are being taught that their lives are not complete until they are attractive to men.

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Girls are learning their place in the world through these oversexualised images, and that when they fulfil these roles put forward by older members of society, they will be both rewarded and shamed. Society implies that young girls should be sexy to look at, but not actually sexually active in a way that pleases themselves. Once a girl takes ownership of her own sexuality, away from the male gaze, they are punished. Over-sexualisation of young girls also reinforces the gender power imbalance, and the dynamics of a patriarchal society in which women are the sexual objects of desire and never in control, removing their right to consent. Exposure to sexist advertising featuring women and young girls as sexual objects is producing a stronger acceptance of sex-role stereotyping and rape among male undergraduates putting female university students in real danger.

The over-sexualisation of young girls undermines their confidence and comfort with their body, leading to negative emotional responses such as disgust and repulsion. Having these types of feelings about your own body can lay the groundwork for developing anxiety, self-loathing and even eating disorders. Research has shown that girls most affected by over-sexualisation are most vulnerable depression, low self-esteem and anorexia. Times when the media changes its mind about the preferred design of the perfect body match spikes in anorexia in under 19 year olds.

We must make an effort to combat this. We need to set in motion a way to teach girls at school to view the media critically. This is known as media literacy education, which provides the media consumer with the analytical skills, confidence and knowledge to promote autonomy from the media. The encouragement of athletic activity in ways that celebrate what your body can do and not what it looks like is also another effective technique. Nurturing extra-curricular involvement gives young girls the opportunity to experience feelings of self-worth in non-sexual environments, and provides more ways for them to define themselves without it being related to how their body looks.

The number one best way to teach girls about sex, female sexuality, gender and consent is through accessible, comprehensive and relatable sex education. Sadly, this is rarely on offer for young girls, and thus most learn about sex and sexuality from the media. Parents and other important, influential family members need to not let over-sexualisation go unchallenged, calling it out when they see it, and letting the young girls know that they are more than just their bodies. We need more sex ed friendly schools and more feminist parenting.

Even if it’s too late for you to go back and have an unapologetically feminist, sex-positive upbringing, it’s not too late for everyone.

Do you know any young girls, so young even that body image struggles have not breached the horizons of their mind? Take a moment, maybe watch them run through a field, jumping in puddles and marvelling at the sky, and think that one day she’s going to look in the mirror for a thigh gap, not wear high-waisted jeans because boys don’t like them, try and fit coins in her collarbone and quieten her opinions in the fear of scaring boys away. Maybe that image will ignite in you a fiery rage. A rage so powerful and bright that you could do so much good with it. A fire strong enough to keep all girls warm against the icy front of hyper-sexualisation.

Hyper-sexualisation you can go and get lost.

– Yours truly A Survivor of you and all your little shit storms.

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