I was in the dressing room at Macy’s where I had the very entertaining opportunity to listen to my “neighbors” trying on clothing in the dressing room next to me: Mom and her pre-teen daughter.
It was a busy day so the mom-daughter duo were sharing a dressing room. The mother was quickly approving and veto-ing clothing that her daughter was trying on. At one point, the mother tells her daughter, “Uhm. No. It looks like your selling something you don’t have.” The daughter didn’t respond.
I’m not sure she comprehended what her mother was saying, exactly. But mom definitely had a point. It must be a challenge to find clothing for pre-teen girls, little girls or adolescent girls these days. Especially, if mothers are developmentally confused, themselves. The boundaries are blurred between clothing for women and girls. I see mothers dressing like their five year old daughters and 5 year old daughters being dressed like much older women.
Sexualization of women occurs on a spectrum from sexual violence to sexualized evaluation. Sexualized evaluation is often subtle and gets played out through, “gaze.” One of my friends calls it, “the scan.” What’s fascinating about “gaze” is that women have no control over being gazed at, yet, as many feminist theorists have argued, the majority of women take on the view point of the “gazer” about themselves! Over time, girls and women internalize the observer’s perspective and begin to view themselves as objects. This is self-objectification.
What are the consequences of self-objectification?
Shame: having a negative opinion of yourself while also fearing being judged in a social context. Shame is a moral or social emotion. It’s the feeling that one doesn’t measure up to some social ideal. It’s the belief that you are responsible for someone else’s opinions or feelings.
It’s quite confusing for women because success in relationships and work have been shown to be evaluated by physical appearance. Research tells us that “beautiful” women have more power in our society. Women are caught in this push-pull of needing to be attractive in order to achieve, yet feel shame when not meeting the over-idealized images we’re exposed to in the media, day after day.
Anxiety: Appearance anxiety. Studies show that women experience more appearance anxiety than men. Women have anxiety about their appearances because they don’t know when their bodies will be judged and evaluated. Then, in a very subtle way, we internalize those judgments of others.
Eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Women make up about 90% of this population.
Not to mention, every time a sexualized woman is viewed by others, the perception of all women are unfavorable by the viewers. This is called the spillover effect. Even when the non-sexualized woman is modestly dressed. Great! : (
There is no arguing that there is a pre-occupation with the appearance of women in American culture. This is a form of outside validation or relying on someone else’s opinion of your appearance in order to gain self-worth. Our society is so far into this mode of validation that it’s doubtful that we’ll turn it around; but, we can still be aware of what we teach young girls (and boys)!
Some mothers confuse letting their daughters wear skimpy clothes with power, freedom and women’s lib. It’s none of those things if you look at any piece of research. Many have to learn the hard way, though. Girls are becoming depressed, have no sense of self-worth beyond the next cute outfit and fall behind in academics. Does this sound like a good start to having a healthy, successful satisfying life?
Sometimes, I get frustrated because our critical thinking skills are quickly being replaced with cleavage. Then parents want to bring their young daughters in for therapy sessions because they are depressed, anxious, have eating disorders and are generally lost.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d prefer parents come in for therapy (instead of their children). We have an enormous opportunity to help boys and girls develop healthy self-concepts and respectful, healthy views of one another. When men and women don’t have healthy self-concepts or healthy, respectful views of others, we can’t expect that our children will either. At the very least, we need to teach our children how to have conversations about healthy sexuality. This won’t make sense to them without parents placing a focus on helping children develop a solid sense of self.