Like most women I know, I have struggled with the realities of sexual objectification all of my life. The tension between my faith and my experience has been an obstacle in discovering my worth before God. My faith teaches me that women and girls were divinely created in the very Image of God, and together with men and boys we are equal co-heirs of eternity with Christ. My faith teaches that this Image is reflected in a woman’s total being, her mind, her soul, her heart and, inclusive of, but not based upon her body and sexuality. But my experience teaches another lesson.
My experience has shown me that the world, and even the church, does not measure women and girls with the measures that God uses. Cultural messages teach that feminine worth is linked to a woman’s status as a sexual object or ability to wield sexual power. As an experienced mental health professional, I know that worldwide women are sexually objectified, harassed, raped, and oppressed every day. As an advocate of social justice, I have learned that numerically, sexual trafficking and sex work to stave off poverty currently enslave more women and girls worldwide than in any time in recorded human history.
Even in wealthy, middle class America, gender-based oppression is a serious factor in young people’s development. Social science research has demonstrated that relationally transmitted messages of worth, fashion trends, media icons, and popular images of distorted beauty teach women and men a mono-dimensional concept of feminine worth resulting in unrealistic body image expectations and stereo-typed, harmful messages about sexuality. Since the fashion industry is lucrative, large corporations contribute to and distribute these images for the purpose of making money without attention to the long-term consequences. Yet the consequences are real.
Eating disorders, self-mutilation, depression, and anxiety have been linked to self-image disturbances that are in part based on distorted images of sexuality. As a counselor I have spent thousands of hours working with women and girls struggling to overcome consequences of messages that their worth is grounded in their sexuality, their sensual appeal, or their ability to satisfy another’s desires. As a mother of young girls, I look at this reality and dread the sexual objectification and body-image based oppression that my daughters will experience in their lives. I find myself mentally rehearsing my response to my precious daughters’ first experiences of being sexually objectified, rather than recognized and respected as a sexual being.
Many men continue to believe it is acceptable to treat women and girls are sexual objects. They believe this in part due to cultural messages that this is the worth of women, and that women find such treatment sexually arousing.
Few companies are as economically successful from their distortion of the sacredness of feminine sexuality as Victoria’s Secret. This lingerie company is one of the most recognized brands in America. Their advertising campaigns are on most television stations, their stores in most malls, and their Christmas fashion show is heralded by some as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Victoria’s Secret’s models have become the American cultural archetype for feminine beauty and sexual objectification. Their semi-divine “Angels” campaign has partially nude models in high heels and wings stare longingly look into the audience speaking “tell me that you love me,” to the unknown viewer, distorting the image of adult female sexuality and love.
While this campaign has been damaging enough to the sexual image of women, Victoria’a Secret has gone a step further. Earlier this year, Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer of Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, announced a new marketing demographic: teenage and tween girls. Bugedoerfer stated about younger girls: “They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at Pink.”
This new “Bright Young Things” line is a corporate declaration that young girls should be sexualized for profit. This line of lingerie and undergarments includes underwear prominently labeled with the phrases “Call Me,” “Wild,” and “Feeling Lucky.” This is not “magic.” This is not cute. I am not going to remain silent as Mr. Burgedoerfer, Limited Brands, and Victoria’s Secret exploit young women’s developing sexual nature for economic gain.
I am speaking it publically and asking others to join me. Tell Limited Brands and Victoria’s Secret their value of making money is not worth exploiting the sacred value of women and girls. While the Angels campaign has long been a mockery of human divine sexuality, this new campaign is a step further into the destruction of feminine sexuality and exploitation of children — and will not be tolerated by the purchasing public. Stand with me. Tell Limited Brands and all their subsidiary companies that until they respect the sexual integrity of young women and girls, that their brands will have no place on our children’s bodies, or our own.
Tara C. Samples, Ph.D. is a grateful disciple of Jesus. She has worked as a Professional Counselor, is a College Professor and is currently completing her postdoctoral residency in Clinical Psychology. She is a wife, a mother of two creative young girls and an advocate for women and girls against violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.