Tag Archives: Body Image


On Monday, the internet was abuzz with the news that Victoria’s Secret Pink had released a new line of panties with slogans about consent. The line, which included underwear with mottoes like “No Means No,” “Ask First,” and “Consent Is Sexy,” was being promoted on a website called The site also featured a section explaining how to practice consent and why it was important, and an explanation of why some previous Pink panty designs–“No Peeking” and “Sure Thing”–contributed to rape culture by suggesting that saying “no” was a good way to flirt and that consent could be presumed.

Victoria’s Secret, which made the news recently for appropriating and sexualizing Native culture in their annual fashion show seemed like an unlikely company to be fighting rape culture, even as a PR move. Sure enough, the website and fashion line turned out to be a hoax dreamed up by FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, an activist group that made headlines for projecting the words “Rape is Rape” on the US Capitol Building the night before the US presidential election.

As FORCE explained, “We could write a pamphlet about consent. In fact, we have written and distributed pamphlets about consent. But how many people are reading pamphlets about sexual practices and how many people are reading facebook post about Victoria’s Secret? Consent needs to become a mainstream idea.”

After Jezebel blogger Katie J.M. Baker broke the hoax story, many people expressed their desire for these products to be real. “I would buy the hell out of those!” read one of the comments. Not surprisingly, a lot of people like the idea of underwear that promotes positive sexual messages, not to mention campaigns featuring models of a variety of sizes and races.

But other comments on the site questioned whether such a campaign, had it really come from the lingerie line, would have been a tangible step to combating rape culture. “No “commodity feminism” from corporations that KNOW they will reap more from fueling [sic] & exploiting women’s insecurities, and promoting rape culture—than they would if they devoted themselves to fighting sexism,” read one comment. Another chillingly speculated, “I work with victims of sexual violence and I am just now having a grim daydream of a pair of these panties in an evidence bag, a case going to trial, and a defense [sic] attorney just LOVING IT. “Of course he didn’t rape her! She was wearing her ‘No means No’ panties! How could he not stop and ask?””

So—what do you think? Would “Consent is Sexy” panties empower people and bring consent culture into the mainstream, or is Victoria’s Secret too much a part of the problem to be part of the solution?

Via Sociological Images is a video highlighting the incredible amount of sexualization present in the representation of young girls in the media. The video by Alexandra O’Dell, a student at North Idaho College, uses examples ranging from advertising to music videos to children’s toys, such as the pole dancing dolls pictured above. In a previous post I talked about media’s infantilization of female sexuality and its harmful effects, which, as this video shows, include low self-esteem and disordered eating, in addition to contributing to a society that makes girls susceptible to sexual assault. The video is well-worth a watch.

A Yahoo article points to a recent “dark trend” of pre-teen girls posting “Am I pretty?” videos to YouTube. In reference to a new 15 year old YouTube “star,” Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, a Harvard sociologist calls the videos “uncomfortably exploitative, as there is clearly a sexual undertone to what she is doing.” Friedman says the increased presence “young girls on YouTube is a disturbing, growing trend.”

The truly disturbing trend is not a recent development, but a longtime one. The girls who post videos asking for valorization based on their looks come out of a culture where the bodies of increasingly younger girls are sexualized and put up for public scrutiny.

In some notable examples of the media’s sexualization of young girls, about a year ago, Abercrombie and Fitch sold padded bikini tops to young girls and French Vogue started controversy with its use of a 10 year old model in a fashion editorial that emulated adult sexuality (as shown above). A 2007 American Psychological Association study linked the sexualization of young girls to disordered eating and low self-esteem, the very same low self-esteem exhibited by the pre-teen girls asking “Am I Pretty?” on YouTube.

If we consider statistics that say 15% of sexual assault or rape victims are under the age of 12 and that Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault (RAINN) then this trend is even more disturbing. Images such as the ones in French Vogue imply that it is ok to look upon a child as a sexual object.

There is nothing wrong with children being sexual. They have every right to, like adults, possess sexual agency, be aware of their sexuality, and receive education on sexual health. Rather than promote sexual agency, however, these images turn young girls into sexual objects. They pin a sexual lens onto young girls and ask them to conform to the same narrow definition of beauty as their older counterparts, that is thin, white, able-bodied, and free of any blemishes or perceived imperfections. With these kinds of standards it seems only inevitable that many pre-teen girls are turning to the internet for confirmation of their value.

Mass media can go one step further and not just turn young girls into sexual objects, but ask adult women to emulate children in order to be sexy. Paradoxically, women must convey innocence while being sexually available. A recent anti-feminist, sexist image from Maxim shows how to “cure” a feminist by turning her into an “actual girl.” The image is almost too blatantly awful to even look at, but  if you can brave it you’ll see it plays into misogynist fears of feminism and women in many ways. Notably it patronizes the women pictured by referring to them as girls, and before transforming into a veritable lingerie model, the “girl” dons pigtails and a babyish outfit and pose as part of her “sexy” morph into an “actual girl.”

This infantilization is not exclusive to men’s magazines, as even images marketed to women use similar tactics. A recent Marc Jacobs ad featuring Dakota Fanning made similar use of a childlike sexuality to sell a product, in this case a high end perfume.

Though Fanning herself at 17 straddles the line between adulthood and childhood, the choice of a ruffled, polka dot dress lack of “adult” jewelry and make up clearly plays up the childlike side of her image. The perfume’s name Oh, Lola! is even a direct reference to Nabokov’s Lolita, perhaps the most famous example of pedophilia in Western culture. The titular character’s real name is Dolores and Lola is one of her many nicknames, Lolita being a diminutive of that. The ad was banned in the UK due to its provocative image of a minor.

These trends inhibit the sexual agency of both adult women and female children. Girls no longer need to wait to grow up to be objectified, but experience sexualization and objectification at a young age. In turn, adult women are asked to emulate an impossible, pre-pubescent ideal and maintain an equally impossible balance of innocence and sexual availability.

Thanks to Janet for the tip.

There’s a new meme on the rise, one i’ve seen pop up on my own Facebook feed, asking when the 21st century ideal of thin, toned, bodies overtook the slightly rounder female physique popular in the mid 20th century. I imagine the meme has achieved popularity as it appears to be championing body acceptance while rebelling against societal pressures. The meme, such as the one pictured above, does nothing of the sort, however, it only seeks to degrade a certain body type in favor of another. Certain women are assigned value over others, and that value is derived from their appeal to men. And really, none of the above images do much to challenge the white, able-bodied, standard of beauty that has reigned for at least the past century. The dominant image may change by a slight few inches, but the power structure remains the same to the detriment of women who are asked to alter themselves to fit the ideal.

This meme is not presenting the finger to society it pretends to. As Shameless points out in its post “The Marilyn Meme”, it maintains the hierarchy wherein one type of female body is valued over another as to further cement the idea that women’s value in society rests on their looks. It shames women’s bodies and pins women against each other, rather than against the culture which fosters low self-esteem.

This is a common tactic, in which women are pitted against each other, so that we lose sight of the real problem: namely, society. If women are fighting amongst ourselves about who is more “beautiful,” if we compare ourselves to other women endlessly, we don’t have time to notice that we’re trapped in a hamster-wheel of low self-esteem. Society hopes that you’ll buy things, to try and make yourself feel better.

Women’s bodies are assigned a certain value, and that value is defined by the body’s “hotness”, or attractiveness in relation to the heterosexual male gaze. This structure is beneficial to, for example, a cosmetics company who can profit by providing the tools women need to achieve this standard, but ultimately harmful to woman who are told they are only valuable if they can be a pleasing image for someone else to look at.

This type of environment presents women as sexual objects, not sexual subjects. It is perhaps the very attitude towards women that drove Marilyn Monroe, the poster girl of this meme, to self-destruction. As per Shameless again:

She was a sex symbol, and thus, stopped existing as human being, a regular girl. Almost everything that fucked up Marilyn’s later life had to do with being “adored” by men. Men used her, or deified her (and that’s a hard come-down for those dudes when they found a human being in their bed the morning after).

It’s this type of environment that makes sexual violence towards women so easy, because they are perceived as a plaything for other people. Jean Kilbourne goes into great detail on the issue of the representation of the female body in the media in her Killing Us Softly film series. The first half of the most recent version is embedded below, and I highly recommend watching it.  It is not so simple as to say that an image of a woman through a sexual gaze leads to violence, but it is the first step towards creating an environment where women are less than human, where it is permissible to perceive them as a sexual object first and foremost. Not a sexual subject in their own right, but an object to be used by someone else, whose value rests on a standard of beauty determined by a heterosexual male gaze. Even if the trend alters slightly from decade to decade, the problem remains the same.

The Marilyn Meme [Shameless]

Real Women Have … Bodies [Feministing]

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