Dress Codes, Pop Stars, and Pornography – oh my!

This month’s article by Lori Boland from the YWCA Metro Vancouver is extra timely in the midst of our current conversations around the systemic issue of harassment of women and girls in film, media – really, on all levels of our existence. The theme for this month is Sexualization, and Lori Boland shares with us how a documentary film on hypersexualization changed her life.

Has watching a documentary film ever changed your life? 

About 10 years ago, one changed mine. Through my work at Big Sisters, I was invited by the YWCA Metro Vancouver to view a screening of the documentary film Sexy Inc. This short film was created in collaboration between the National Film Board of Canada and the YWCA Montreal, it deals with an issue I had yet to hear of: hypersexualization.

Although I had been working with young people – in particular girls – for many years around issues of self-esteem, body image and healthy relationships – I had never actually heard the word hypersexualization before. Yet, it precisely summed up all of the perspectives and concerns that had guided my practice for years. The stories, ideas and issues in the film hit home and hit it hard.

I ended up purchasing a copy of the film and bringing it back to Big Sisters. I showed it to staff, to mentors, to youth – anyone who would listen to me. I created a series of workshops based on the topic and eventually focused my Masters of Social Work research on the issue. This path ended up steering me back towards the YWCA Metro Vancouver, where today I’m leading a federally-funded advocacy project called Culture Shift that is shifting the environments which contribute to hypersexualization.

Now that you know how I got here, I’d like to share with you some of what I know about sexualization in the hopes of raising consciousness, building empowerment and helping shift culture for the better.

Sexualization can show up in different ways:

  • when a person is valued only for their sexuality and desirability
  • when they are objectified and made into a thing for others’ sexual use
  • when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on them (this is mostalarmingwhen it happens to children)

We see sexualization show up when talented young pop starlets are portrayed as sexual objects despite having immense vocal and creative talent. Think Miley swinging naked on a wrecking ball; Rhianna bound in S&M gear or Ariana Grande working out on her stationary bike. Despite the fact that all these young women are talented as singers, writers, producers and dancers – we repeatedly see them portrayed first and foremost as sexual objects.

Serena Williams

We see sexualization show up when female athletes are critiqued for what they look like, what they wear and how their bodies take up space in the world – with no mention of their athletic prowess, strength and skill. There are numerous examples of this: after Eugenie Bouchard slayed at the Australia Open, she was asked to “give a twirl”;  and after winning her sixth Wimbledon championship, Serena Williams’s body was openly and rampantly scrutinized in the media?  Interestingly, when sport editorial giant Sports Illustrated profiles female athletes, they only receive 5% of the airspace – compared to the 95% that is given to their male counterparts.

Sexualization of women has been a mainstay in advertising since the inception of the industry. For years advertisers have relied on the idea that using sex to sell something – from chewing gum to cars – would increase sales and profits (only recently has research stated exactly the opposite.)

Sexualization shows up in the proliferation of hardcore porn sites on the net; in dated dress codes that dictate and regulate what girls and women should wear; and in the ongoing fight for gender pay equity.

I could go on and on with examples of how and where sexualization shows up in our world – but I think you get the point. It’s virtually impossible to make it through a day without seeing a woman’s body used to sell us something. And, more often than not, that woman’s body has been airbrushed or manipulated in some way to make her standard of beauty absolutely and unequivocally unattainable. She is held up as the gold standard for success, beauty and femininity – yet “she” doesn’t exist. For young people who are turning to media to form their understanding of the world, of gender and of relationships, these role models in media aren’t providing tangible or positive examples.

Sexualization of women and girls seems inescapable in media. Research suggests it’s a leading cause of some of the most common mental health issues among young women and girls: eating disorders, depression and anxiety. At an interpersonal level, it contributes to the development of sexist attitudes and beliefs which impact healthy relationships and on a broad scale, increasing the societal tolerance of violence against women.

Given what we know about sexualization’s negative impact on individuals and society, I’m so happy that conversations on the issue have entered public discourse. From grass-roots youth movements to high-level governments, people are building momentum to combat it and taking action to create change.  At the YWCA, we are taking action against sexualization through public education and awareness campaigns and aligning with high level decision makers on the issue to mobilize change at all levels of society.  And, soon to be released will be our media complaints tool kit which will give the public tools to lodge complaints against the sexualization of women in Canadian advertising and broadcasting.  Stay tuned for more information on that!

To find out what you can do to help combat sexualization, check out the growing list of resources we are creating in Culture Shift.


Feature image: “Smile!” – Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson from their show, Broad City – from Bustle

The Amazing Serena Williams – from SI

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply