It is in movies, music, and books. It is promoted in advertisements, magazines, and on television. It is consumed daily by millions and its imagery is being viewed and applied to women and girls all over the world; mass producing stereotypical narratives and sexist social norms that attempt to shape the “value” and “worth” of girls’ and women’s bodies. What is this “it”? “It” is the sexual objectification and exploitation of women and girls in the media.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, sexual objectification can be “roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually women [and girls] as objects.” From this perspective, women and girls are viewed solely as objects of desire and for their bodies, instead of whole individuals who have emotions, personalities, and behaviors beyond the scope of the act of sex.
And sexual exploitation is a form of sexual violence, which is a global human rights injustice with severe health and social consequences.
In 2010, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report on the sexualization of girls in the media and found that massive exposure to media among youth sexualizes women and girls, teaching girls that women are sexual objects. Examining various media, the findings proved women and girls are more likely to be portrayed in a sexual manner (dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person).
With these sexist, stereotypical models of femininity constantly being perpetuated in the media, the negative implications affecting the mental, emotional, and physical wellness of girls are many.
Consequences for girls and women at-large include anxiety about appearance and feelings of shame, eating disorders, lower self-esteem, and depression. The study also found that sexualization of women and girls can also have a negative impact on boys and men. According to the APA, objectifying girls and women, and sex itself, is integral to masculinity and these beliefs may jeopardize men’s ability to form and maintain intimate relationships with women.
While the sexual exploitation of women and girls is rampant, there are many ways that you can help combat the media objectification of girls. Whether it is through writing, petitioning, or joining organizations that promote gender equality and balanced gender representation in the media, here are ways in which you can help stop sexual exploitation of girls.
Founded by Academy Award-winning actor and advocate Geena Davis, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence media producers to dramatically improve gender representation in films, to stop stereotyping girls and women, and to create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children ages 11 and under.
Offering educational programming for content creators, entertainment industry leaders, corporations, educational institutions, and individuals focused on gender equality and the use of non-stereotypical images of women and girls, the Geena Davis Institute provides gender equality lessons and symposiums to sensitive both current and future media content creators.
The Dove Self-Esteem Project is also bringing awareness to this issue by promoting body confidence all over the world. As the largest provider of self-esteem education, the project helps young people develop a positive relationship with the way they look. According to Dove, six in ten girls avoid participating in fundamental life activities because of concerns about the way they look. Globally, only 11 percent of girls would call themselves beautiful.
Since 2004, the Dove Self Esteem Project has reached 17 million young people worldwide with self-esteem education, body confidence, and resources that are designed to help individuals engage and support young people ages seven to 17 on issues relating to self-esteem and body image issues.
After sexually explicit and abusive tweets were directed at a 12-year old contestant on Brazil’s Junior Master Chef, thousands of women and girls flocked to social media to discuss the sexist norms that permeate Brazil. In response to the violent comments, a Brazilian, feminist non-governmental organization called Think Olga, created the hashtag #primeiroassédio (which means first harassment) and urged women and girls to participate using the hashtag to discuss their personal experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Countless stories were shared, revealing a chronic issue within Brazilian society in regards to how girls and women are represented in the media and beyond.
Another campaign called #WomenNotObjects is also taking a stand against objectification of girls and women in advertisements. When ad executive Madonna Badger googled “objectification of women” she found endless advertisements that hypersexualized women and girls to the highest degree. Addressing this issue head on, her advertising agency Badger & Winters—which focuses on communicating to women—made a commitment to never objectify women in their work and created a video mocking the myriad ads that use women as sexualized props to promote their brands.
You, too, can use social media to bring awareness about sexual objectification of women and girls in the media. Whether it is tweeting, sharing a post on Facebook, or creating your own hashtag, do not miss out on an opportunity to shed light on sexist images that affect women and girls every day, or to promote solutions that are working to combat sexism and promote gender equality.
The Women’s Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong, is creating a documentary that is challenging the objectification of women and girls in Hong Kong culture. In collaboration with Women Helping Women Hong Kong, the documentary, “She Objects,” which is set to release later on this year, shows how women and girls are portrayed in media and advertising and the connections between sexual objectification and mental, emotional, and physical implications, including eating disorders, low self-esteem, sexual harassment, and violence.
Jean Kilbourne’s award-winning documentaries “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Images of Women” and “Still Killing Us Softly” also focus on gender stereotypes in the media and its effects on women and girls. The 2011 documentary film Miss Representation by The Representation Project, highlights the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and challenges the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman. Truth in Reality, a social advocacy organization, is also leading a documentary project called Redefining HERstory™, discussing the dire need to change the imbalanced media depictions of Black and Afro-Latina women and girls of color.
If you think the messages in these documentaries are important, spread the word about them on social media and consider hosting a watch party with your friends and family!
The 4 Every Girl campaign is calling on entertainment and media industry leaders to create an environment where young girls feel valued and are defined by healthy media images of themselves. Sign their petition to call on leaders in the entertainment and media industries to produce media images that respect, empower, and promote the true value of every girl.
In addition, the Women’s Media Center is a pioneering leader in monitoring the media for sexism, launching petitions, and holding the media accountable for an equal voice and equal participation. Have you read, seen, or heard problematic coverage of women and girls in the local or national media? You can report it to the Women’s Media Center and they will review your complaint.
Additionally, if you notice the objectification of women in media, such as an advertisement or film sexualizing women or girls, you can go directly to the source of the media and write a complaint letter to the company or organization behind it.
While these are only five ways to end sexual objectification of women and girls in the media, there are many other opportunities to promote positive imagery and messages about women and girls. Whether it is through educating others, volunteering with girl-centered groups, or just monitoring what you watch, you too, can take part in ending the sexual objectification of women and girls.