Body Image Perfectionism: Insidious By-Product of the sexualization of Women and Girls

Adults and children alike are daily bombarded with sexualized images of women and girls as they watch TV, surf the web, play video games, watch music videos, and look at print media (the image at the left is of Dakota Fanning in the recent Marc Jacobs ad for “Oh Lola” fragrance.)  There is a link between the pervasiveness of ever younger, more sexualized images of girls and larger issues such as the exploitation of girls, child pornography, and intimacy problems in both women and men.  The negative effects of sexualized imagery seem to be linked to the following.

(1) The depiction of women and girls is becoming more and more “objectified” and more and more sexual.  Objectification means

  • A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • A person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

(2) The images of women in the media are increasingly idealized and unrealistic in terms of thinness, youth, and flawlessness.  In fact, 97% of images on the web have been in some way altered to be more perfect.  This gives adults and especially teens an unrealistic expectation about attractiveness and makes it more difficult to relate to a “real” less perfect or mature person.

Little has been written about the causes of the seemingly relentless trend toward increased sexualization in the culture and toward sexualized portrayal and targeting of younger and younger girls.

The sexual attraction to youth on the part of adults exists and is present in many people as one of our deeply unconscious and most primitive feelings which have been submerged and excluded as we mature by the Darwinian societal taboo against cross generational sex.  But that which is primitive and taboo when it is brought into the open in an apparently socially acceptable way is bound to be enormously compelling.

This is consistent with the empirical finding that exposure to child sexual imagery somehow brings the attraction to consciousness and reinforces it.  Furthermore, when there is profit to be made off of the primitive and unacknowledged feelings that exist in the adults, then commerce will take advantage of that fact.  There exists a vicious circle of sexualized content, increased objectification of girls, risky sexual behavior in tweens and teens, exploitation of children and young people, and the epidemic of internet porn.

There is a disconnect between what society views to be child sexualized content in an acceptable form and what is seen as child pornography.  That is to say that the vicious circle continues to exist because we have come to lead a “double life” as a society.  Examples of the acceptable form of child sexualization can be readily seen on any web page relating to so called “baby beauty pageants”, in which very young girls are made to look like alluring adults via clothing and make-up.  Another example would be the “barely legal” sort of imagery in the study cited above in which women over 18 are made up to look like children. The compartmentalization of sex offending as a separate thing from the “harmless” sexualization of children enables us to continue to accept media phenomena that are not in fact harmless.