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Sexualized music videos, self-objectification, and wellbeing for girls

By Christin Bowman

*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

Music videos may be one of the most degrading pieces of media out there. I, for one, can’t remember the last time I watched a music video that didn’t incorporate women of the lip-licking, hip-humping, nearly-naked variety. Some experts suggest that almost 90% of music videos incorporate objectifying images of women, often portraying women as prostitutes and servants. [1] Not only that, but men are shown in lead roles five times more frequently than women in music videos, and women are usually relegated to roles such as posers or dancers – often being publicly ogled by the men on screen.[2] Evidence like this simply cannot be ignored, and it forces us to question how these kinds of overly provocative and male-centered representations of women might affect the women and girls who watch them.

These sorts of questions are just the kind of thing Drs. Shelley Grabe and Janet Shibley Hyde research. In a recent scientific study, Grabe and Hyde wanted to find out exactly what happens to adolescent girls who report watching a lot of music television.[3] Their research was based on a concept known in psychology as self-objectification. Self-objectification is the idea that girls and women are not just objectified by others but actually learn to objectify their own bodies. Girls and women are constantly objectified by other people in their everyday lives and are frequently exposed to objectifying images of other women in the media. Because of this, girls and women learn that society values them the most when their bodies fit certain narrow and unattainable standards (bone skinny, tall, big boobs, blonde hair, white skin, impeccable fashion sense and flawless eyeliner, to name just a few). As a result, women and girls put a lot of effort into monitoring their own bodies and trying to look at their bodies the ways they think other people do. They become their own worst critics.

Pretty sad, isn’t it? Or perhaps all too familiar?

Shelley Grabe and Janet Shibley Hyde thought so too. So they asked 195 seventh grade girls how often they watched MTV, BET, and music videos in general. Then they measured how much each girl self-objectified by asking the girls how much they agreed with statements like, “During the day, I think about how I look many times.” Finally, they collected information from the girls about body-related self-esteem, dieting, depression, anxiety, and math confidence.

What they found shouldn’t be surprising, but it still makes me cringe: Girls who watch a lot of music television are much more likely to self-objectify. Not only that, but girls who watched more MTV, BET, and music videos (and therefore, who self-objectified), showed significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and dieting behaviors, and had lower body-related self-esteem and confidence in math ability. “We’ve demonstrated that it doesn’t matter what the exposure is, whether it’s general TV watching in the evening, or magazines, or ads showing on a computer,” states Grabe. “If the image is appearance-focused and sends a clear message about a woman’s body as an object, then it’s going to affect women.”

In other words, Grabe and Hyde believe that when girls are exposed to lots of degrading and objectifying images of women in music videos – images that stress the value of looking a certain way – they start to believe that their own physical appearances are the most important part of themselves. Of course, comparing my body to Beyonce’s has never done wonders for my self-esteem. But Grabe and Hyde have demonstrated in their research that just being exposed to such hypersexualized and objectified images of women may actually do real damage to girls. These images make girls believe that they are nothing if they are not “beautiful” (You’ll notice my quotes around that word. I don’t like the way the media dictates what “beautiful” means, so I don’t want to buy into it. You understand.). Girls are made to believe that their bodies are there to be ogled, evaluated, used, and discarded. That “sexy” means looking a certain way, and that looking “sexy” is the top priority. It’s no wonder exposure to these images makes girls anxious!

It’s time to push back. “I think we need to consider how we’re using media images as a culture to share the values we think are important,” says Shelley Grabe. She and Janet Shibley Hyde believe (and I agree) that girls should be taught about the damaging marketing strategies being pushed on them, and about how these strategies affect girls. Exposing a monster is the first step toward conquering it.

Girls deserve the knowledge that will allow them to protect themselves. They must learn how to look at media in general, and music videos in particular, with a critical eye. They need to know that what they are watching isn’t real. It’s not life. And it’s not how life should be.

[1] Andsager, J. & Roe, K. (2003). “What’s your definition of dirty, baby?” Sex in music video. Sexuality and Culture, 7, 79-97.

[2] Gow, J. (1996). Reconsidering gender roles on MTV: Depictions in the most popular music videos of the early 1990s. Communication Reports, 9, 151-161.

[3] Grabe, S., & Hyde, J.S. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, 2840-2858.

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