by Jenn Chmielewski
*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement
Getting guys’ attention can be tough. I’m smart, friendly, and can bring down the house with my rendition of Lady Gaga – yes, I’m a little monster. But if you take a look at magazines and TV these days, you’d think that the only thing guys are after is super-sexy-looking gals who act in super-sexualized ways. No substance required. I’m bombarded by messages telling me that I can’t just be myself and instead need to go out of my way to get guys’ attention by washing cars in an itty bitty bikini and high heels (guaranteed to give me a wedgie) or pole-dancing at a party (wedgie again + pulling a muscle = not a fun night). Needless to say, according to what the media tells me guys want, I straight up don’t look sexy enough for any guy to be interested in. It’s annoying and makes me feel like I just don’t measure up.
What else am I supposed to think after watching America’s Next Top Model? Surely no guy is into a girl with wit and talent – I must have to sexify my appearance just to be noticed, right? Researchers Jane Nowatzki and Marion Morry[i] seem to think that other women feel the same way as I do. They wondered whether watching more media of sexually objectified women would be related to women wanting to behave sexually themselves. Researchers have already shown that sexualized media can make women feel like they’re not beautiful or sexy enough[ii]. Nowatzki & Morry took this a step further. They predicted that looking at sexualized images of women in the media would explain why some women choose to behave in super sexualized ways (Girls Gone Wild style).
To test their theory, they first examined how much sexually objectifying media a group of college women looked at (TV shows and magazines that SPARK is all too familiar with, like America’s Next Top Model, Cosmo and Teen Vogue). Then they asked the women how willing they were to engage in sexualized behaviors like ‘taking a pole dancing or strip-aerobics class’ or ‘taking part in a wet t-shirt contest.’ They also asked the women how appropriate they believed these behaviors were for women in general.
Wouldn’t ya know, viewing sexually objectifying media predicted women’s acceptance of sexualized behavior for other women and their willingness to engage in this behavior themselves. So basically, women who viewed sexualized magazines and tv shows like Cosmo and America’s Next Top Model were more willing act in really sexualized ways to be noticed than women who didn’t. And, to me, that really rings true. I mean, I really don’t appreciate walking by the huge Victoria’s Secret billboard I pass on my way to school everyday. But as unrealistic and annoying as I know these “angels” are, I’ll admit that sometimes I start to get the idea that the baggy sweater I’m wearing (and the fact that I’m not wearing the push-up bra being advertised) may not be doing me any favors. I start to wonder if I look sexy enough for anyone to pay attention to me – if I look sexy enough to matter.
And according to this research, I’m not alone. Media portrayals of sexualized women really can affect our ideas about how we should act and what’s considered “sexy.” The media packages sexual objectification and sells it as sexual empowerment, so it can be really tricky to know the difference. When we’re surrounded by these images of sexualized women, it becomes really hard to figure out our own sexuality and how we feel instead of what we are told guys want to see.
But when I forget about the media and just think about what I want and my own experiences, I remember that the kind of guy I’m looking for won’t buy into this women-are-only-worthwhile-if-they-look-“sexy” crap. I know that my sexuality has about as much to do with the way I look as the adrenaline rush from a first kiss has to do with the color of my chapstick – nothing. Sexuality is about the ways we feel and experience our bodies, not about what those bodies look like. We need to replace images of “sexy-looking” bodies in the media with ideas and expressions of sexuality based on our feelings. And that will make some room for real empowerment.
[i] Nowatzki, J., & Morry, M. M. (2009). Women’s intentions regarding, and acceptance of, self-sexualizing behavior. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 95-107.
[ii] Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner, I. (2011). Are contemporary media images which seem to display women as sexually empowered actually harmful to women? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 38-45.