Sexiness over Substance: The Portrayal of Women in Media

You see dozens of ads every day, read the news, watch TV, read magazines, and look at social media. Americans spend a vast amount of time each year consuming the messages the media presents, but how much time do we spend reflecting on that content? The answer is not enough, specifically in the sexualization of women. Every day, Americans see images of scantily clad, impossibly skinny, highly photoshopped women and hear comments that sexualize or objectify women. Every day, we internalize these sexist messages. Every day, we diminish women to simply the appearance of their body.

American society teaches us that catcalls, wolf-whistles and demeaning comments are compliments to women. This notion states that if a woman is beautiful, drawing attention to her appearance is flattering; however, these actions diminish the woman’s status. Throughout history, women have been viewed as only childbearers and objects of beauty. A catcall brings attention solely to a woman’s appearance, highlighting the idea that her value is in her looks. Ads, movies, music videos and other forms of media also objectify rather than compliment women. By showing women only as being skinny, minimally clad, unattainably beautiful, and only present for the pleasure of men, the media reinforces the notion that women are objects. Catcalls and wolf whistles have the same, degrading meaning: the recipient is worth nothing other than their looks.

The objectification of women in media has terrible impacts on women and girls world-wide. 

“No matter how hard I tried, I felt inadequate. I became increasingly susceptible to peer pressure and the bombardment of media messages telling me that being strong, smart, and accomplished was not enough. To be a woman meant constantly striving for an unattainable ideal of beauty  and approval in the eyes of men,” recalls Jennifer Siebel-Newsom, director and producer of the documentary Miss Representation, which speaks of the negative impact of the sexualization of women in media. 

In that documentary, a high school student, named Maria, broke down while saying “When is it going to be enough?… I have a younger sister and she hacks herself. She cuts herself because she gets teased in school because she doesn’t have the perfect body …What can I do so my little sister won’t be getting hurt by the media? How long is it going to take for someone to take a stand?” 

“The American Psychological Association has found in recent years that self-objectification has become a national epidemic, a national problem. The more women and girls self-objectify, the more likely they are to be depressed, to have eating disorders, they have lower confidence, they have lower ambition, they have lower cognitive function, they have lower GPAs…women who are high self-objectifiers…[do not believe their] voice matters in politics…[or] can make a change in politics. So if we have a whole generation of young people being raised where women’s objectification is just par for the course, it’s normal, it’s okay, we have a whole generation of women who are less likely to run for office and less likely to vote,” remarked Caroline Heidman PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science.

The Dove Self Esteem Project found only 11% of girls worldwide would call themselves beautiful. This is horrific. The media is teaching girls and women that they are not enough: not beautiful enough, not sexy enough, not worthy of the joys of life. At a young age, girls are taught to self-objectify, to see themselves as objects of beauty. “Between 1937 and 2005, there were only 13 female protagonists in animated movies. All of them, except one had the aspiration of finding romance,” activist and actress, Geena Davis exclaimed. When girls are shown they only can be someone’s wife or girlfriend, how will they know they can change the world? How will they know they have power and choices?

The sexualization of women in media does not end after childhood, it only increases. According to Miss Representation, “53% of 13 year old girls are unhappy with their  bodies; that number increases to 78% by age 17.” Peer and social pressure to conform to the ideal of the “perfect woman” influence teen girls at an age where teenagers of every gender are more vulnerable.

Young men are also impacted by the media’s representation of women. “We’re socializing boys to believe that being a man means being powerful and in control. Being smarter than women, or better than women, or our needs get met first in relationships with women, that’s not genetically predestined. That’s learned behavior,” explains Dr. Jackson Katz. When boys learn to sexualize and objectify women, they are more likely to support this negative social construct. 

The objectification and sexualization of women and media is detrimental to equality. Americans must stand up to this sexist message both in real life and in the media. Women are powerful, intelligent, empowering, and worth more than simply their appearance. It is past time the media recognized this.

By Amira Pierotti

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