The Real Problem With Sexualization Isn’t Victoria’s Secret

One girl’s source of embarrassment can be another’s source of pride, says Hugo Schwyzer.

“I’m going to be a cheerleader.” 

Those were the confident words of my four year-old daughter Heloise on a Sunday afternoon last month. We were in a hotel in Anaheim, getting ready for the Passover holiday. The same Hilton was packed to the gills with cheerleaders aged 5-18, all competing in a statewide competition in the convention center next door. And when Heloise stepped into the ocean of bows and teased hair, bare midriffs, and blue eye shadow, she clapped her hands with glee and demanded to be allowed to hug every cheerleader in the lobby. I lost count at 19 competitors embraced.

When I tweeted that “Weezie” was enchanted by cheerleaders and was attempting to hug the entire lot, I got a series of anxious replies. “Get her out of there!” wrote one friend; “You’re not going to let her try out for cheer, are you?” asked another. A third came to the point, messaging: “You know that sexualization is a huge problem, so why would you let Heloise be influenced by girls who are in its thrall?” 

As the recent (manufactured) controversy about a phantom Victoria’s Secret line for pre-teens reminded us, we’re in an era of tremendous anxiety about sexualization. Since the American Psychological Association’s 2007 report on the sexualization of girls, there’s been a concerted and worthy campaign by feminists and children’s rights activists to push back against what the APA called the “adultification” of teens and pre-teens—and to encourage parents and teachers to de-emphasize the importance of physical appearance in girls’ lives. Researchers found that girls do best in environments where they aren’t just praised for their looks—and where their clothing options aren’t limited to the prematurely sexy.

Yet as Jenna Sauers found in the impassioned response to her column exposing the misrepresentation of the Victoria’s Secret “Bright Young Things” campaign, there’s some considerable confusion about what “sexualization” means. That same misunderstanding undergirds the anxious responses to my 4-year-old’s desire to become a cheerleader. Too many cry “sexualization!” at the sight of every short skirt or tight pink top, without stopping to ask whether it’s possible for a girl to care about her appearance (or to want to be a cheerleader with ribbons and a bare tummy) without engaging in destructive “self-objectification.”

The APA lists four main criteria for sexualization:

1. a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;

2. a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;

3. 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

4. sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

In light of these criteria, it’s worth asking: Who decides a young girl’s value? Who determines that a girl is a “thing for other’s sexual use” and not a person “with the capacity for independent action?” While it would be wrong to oversell the autonomy of teens and tweens, it’s also a colossal error to paint them solely as the unwitting sexualized victims of cynical and manipulative fashion manufacturers and advertisers. 

As Australian researcher Nina Funnell points out, “we need to remember that many teen girls deliberately aspire to dress in ways that are purposefully unknowable to adults…we would do well to listen to [them] and understand that they make sense of their own choices in ways which we may never have really considered.” What seems like “inappropriately imposed” objectification to an adult eye almost certainly has a very different meaning to the teen or child. The same outfits (like a cheerleader’s uniform, or a frilly Victoria’s Secret top) may mean different things to the different girls who wear it, even if it signals the same scary thing (sexualization) to worried adults. Parents and teachers aren’t always wrong to worry, but it’s worth remembering that girls are anything but monolithic: One girl’s source of embarrassment can be another’s source of pride. That’s worth remembering.

Sexualization is a very real problem. The backlash against it, however, can lead to the pathologizing of any and all interest in beauty, fashion, or traditionally feminine sports like cheer, dance, gymnastics, and figure skating. In the rush to make sure that girls have role models who aren’t primarily concerned with beauty, we risk labeling those girls who are interested in cultivating their appearance as either frivolous or victimized. When the APA calls for a culture that rewards accomplishments “based on young people’s abilities and character rather than on their appearance” (emphasis mine), they perpetuate a frustratingly false dichotomy. It’s the modern iteration of the lie that a girl can’t be both pretty and smart: In this new paradigm, you can’t care about your looks and be empowered at the same time. Achieving the latter means letting go (or pretending to let go) of any interest in beauty and sexiness.

Much of the anxiety about sexualization is really about outsourcing adult men’s self-control to the bodies of young girls. The real sexualizers aren’t the marketers, but the older boys and men who are unwilling to distinguish grown women from children. Men aren’t nearly as weak, stupid, or easily deceived as we like to imagine. We fret about sexualization because we fret that grown men will, inevitably, see a short skirt, or a t-shirt with a provocative message, as an invitation—even on the body of a 12-year-old. That sells men woefully short. It’s not an overask—really, it isn’t—to expect adult men to see a 14-year-old in heels and makeup as still a child. The problem is less girls’ self-objectification and more adult men’s refusal to stop using that supposed self-objectification as an excuse to be predatory creepers. 

Girls need more options. They deserve, as the APA implores, media images and programs that “help [them] feel powerful in ways other than through a sexy appearance.” Girls also deserve, however, to be recognized for the complex, creative, and often inscrutable ways in which they successfully navigate beauty culture. What looks like destructive self-objectification to adult eyes may mean something completely different (and far more empowering) to a teen. Or to a much younger girl: When I asked Heloise, once we were back in our hotel room, why she liked hugging the cheerleaders so much, she had a ready answer. “It was because they were so pretty, daddy. And because they were so strong.”

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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