by Nadiah Mohajir
Is there a difference between sexuality and sexualization? How can we determine if our young girls want to dress sexually because they feel empowered, or because they feel pressured to fit in? The age at which girls are expected to dress sexually has become younger and younger, and if we don’t teach young girls to push back on those pressures, we will not be preparing them for when they will need to make decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.
The recent uproar and controversy surrounding the Made in Bangladesh American Apparel ad featuring a topless Bengali woman illustrates that many, including the model herself, can no longer distinguish when an expression of sexuality is healthy, and when that expression is actually an object of sexualization. Tanzila Ahmed writes a thought provoking letter to Maks, the model featured in this ad, exploring the balance between being expressive and “exotified and commodified.” She continues to explore this, writing
“You think you chose to be creative — but in actuality you were plucked by your employer to sell an object. I believe the object you are selling is high-waisted pants, but it’s unclear from the photo. They are rolled down so suggestively. What American Apparel is selling is sex, and in this case, by having “Made in Bangladesh” across your bare breasts, you are selling fetishized sex. One where the brown woman is objectified.”
So how do we distinguish when a young person is displaying a healthy expression of their sexuality versus being an object of sexualization? Dr. Leonard Sax explains offers one distinction in his book, Girls on the Edge:
“Girls today are bombarded with the notion that revealing your body is a valid means of self-expression, even a manifestation of ‘girl power.’ As parents, we must reject the notion that girls have to reveal their bodies in order to empower themselves. Boys don’t have to take of their clothes to empower themselves. Girls shouldn’t either.
Sexuality is good, but sexualization is bad. Sexuality is about your identity as a woman or a man, about feeling sexual. Thats a healthy part of being human, a healthy part of becoming an adult. But sexualization is about being an object for the pleasure of others, about being on display for others. Sexuality is about who you are. Sexualization is about how you look.”
He continues to explain that younger girls are being pressured to dress sexually, and often times, before they even are aware of their own sexuality. So, in other words, they are socialized into thinking that dressing that way is the norm, and to dress that way is pleasing to others, and an empowering and healthy way to express one’s sexuality. This desensitization leads to a “no big deal” type attitude toward anything sexual, ultimately desensitizing girls, and making them more accepting of partaking in sexual activity to gain boys’ pleasure and popularity, not because they feel empowered. The pressures to dress a certain way are very strong and embedded in subtle and not so subtle messaging in music, videos, and advertising. Even a simple stroll through the girls’ clothing section in any department store is enough to see our young girls are expected to dress sexually well before they are even aware of their sexual desire. So what can we do to help our girls feel better about themselves and not feel inadequate when they do not give in to the pressures of dressing sexually? Here are a few tips.
- Talk openly and frequently with your daughter about her thoughts on the matter. As your daughter gets older, she will become more aware of the pressures around her. She will begin to notice her friends may be dressing more provocatively, and may also feel frustrated at the perceived instant popularity some young girls are awarded, and may correlate it to the way they dress. Ask your daughter to share with you why this frustrates her, and ask her to think about what she may think are healthy ways of self-expression. What motivation do young girls have to dress sexually? What are the benefits and disadvantages? Also ask her to think about the messaging she is getting from female celebrities and the media. What standards of beauty are female celebrities setting? What gender stereotypes are they reinforcing? What makes a woman empowered? What qualities define a musician or actress’s talent?
- Begin helping your daughter build her sense of self well before the teenage years. The teenage years are by far the most confusing, and overwhelming, with the sudden physical, emotional, and social changes adolescents are forced to go through at once. It is very easy for young people to feel pressured to compromise on their values, or more importantly, begin questioning the values they have been taught throughout their childhood. Suddenly, what the popular girl in school is advocating seems to make more sense than the “archaic” values that parents have been advocating. Furthermore, it is very easy for a young girl to become obsessed with an ideal, and attaching her self-worth to it – whether that obsession is being thin, being fashionable, playing sports, pursuing a particular hobby, or excelling in school If a young girl’s preoccupation with a specific ideal leads to an obsession, she is risking losing her self-worth if that ideal disappears. A strong sense of self, one that is based on values and character, and her spiritual relationship with God, rather than external capabilities or interests, protects her from losing her self-worth. So for example, a young girl who defines herself as the “smart girl” may become paralyzed if she is ever faced with a challenge that she finds difficult, one that she may not succeed at and lose her “smart girl” status. Developing a strong sense of self will also help young girls to fight off the pressures to dress a certain way to please others, as they won’t feel as strong a pressure to define themselves by how they look, but rather by the values they stand for. In addition, it will help them push back on even stronger pressures, such as participating in risky sexual activity or other risky behaviors.
- Exemplify the confidence you want them to embody. A young girl looks up to the older females in her life to set the tone. If the important women in her life do not exude confidence about how they look, dress and feel, they are likely to not view that kind of appearance as beautiful or appealing. Even if you find yourself being critical of how you look, try not to allow her to catch on to your lack of confidence (and try to work on raising that confidence!).
- Nurture your daughter’s healthy self-expressions and creativity. We all have preconceived notions of what matches, what looks good together, and how one should dress in certain occasions. The beauty of children is that they do not enter the world with these preconceived notions or expectations. Allowing them to explore their creativity and self-expression early on will foster confidence as they make decisions when they get older. Expecting them to adhere to certain fashion norms (such as no gym shoes with party dresses, etc) will only make it harder for them to push back on the more unhealthy fashion norms as they get older, like wearing makeup and dressing sexually at a young age.
- Help them develop a healthy body image. Teaching your daughter early on the difference between sexuality, which is about who you are as a person, and sexualization, which is objectification for the pleasure of others, will help her identify her motivations for how to express herself through dress. Teach her to think critically about the contradictory messages she gets from the media, about what society expects of women and the methods through which women are objectified. When a young girl has a positive body image, and loves her body for what it is, she is less likely to want to objectify it for others’ pleasure, but rather more likely to cherish it and give it its due respect. Her empowerment will not come from what she chooses to wear or not to wear, but rather from somewhere deeper within her self.
- Similarly, teach her to be media literate. Challenge her to think critically about the ads and the messaging she is seeing. Is that ad really selling cologne? Or is it selling sexuality and beauty? What techniques are advertisers using to sell their product? What feelings of inadequacy are they trying to appeal to? Teaching young people to critically think about and challenge the media’s messaging and imaging enables them to be more aware of when women are being objectified and to not fall prey to the advertising techniques.
- Have similar conversations with your sons. We would be missing an important part of the equation if we don’t have similar conversations with our sons. If we don’t start also challenging the norms our young boys are socialized to, we’re not making progress toward changing the discourse, we’re only creating a greater rift between the genders. It’s essential to teach our young men to challenge the messages they get, and to learn early on about how to respect women, instead of sexualizing and objectifying them, and how to honor sexuality in a healthy and respectful way.
These are just a few tips as we think about pushing back on the sexualization of girls, and objectification of women. It is crucial as to help our young girls develop a strong sense of self and positive body image, as it goes hand in hand with healthy sexuality and responsible decision making.