So the ‘thinner-and-sexier evolution” series is kind of winding down, as there are (thankfully, I think?) only a limited number of consumer products that have been around long enough so as to be able to undergo some kind of thin-and-sexy transformation. Besides, at this point, it’s kind of "clicked there, browsed that," you know? Especially since every toy/image transformation does some basic variation on the theme of “thin down and sex up.”
Call it the Barbiefication of toys for girls.
Or, you could call it what the American Psychological Association does, which is sexualization. Sexualization, as opposed to healthy sexuality, is defined (by the APA) as any one of the following:
- 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.
As usual, a picture makes things clearer: what if all the Avengers posed like the female one?
This brilliant artistic experiment demonstrates just how pervasive images portraying females as sexually available objects are, such that when we see men posing in ways that signify sexual objectification, it looks strange.
The APA task force writes:
“In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.“
Sexualization is damaging, really damaging, in a number of ways. Namely, it:
- has been repeatedly shown to detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities such as mathematical computations or logical reasoning;
- has repeatedly been linked with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood;
- has negative consequences in terms of girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality; and/or,
- makes it difficult for some men to find an “acceptable” partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner as a result of over exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness.
The APA has a number of recommendations—you can read the report here if you like—but one thing the organization mentions kind of stuck with me in relationship to what churches can do/have done:
“encourage girls to become activists who speak out and develop their own alternatives.”
As I’ve said before, many of the messages given to young girls in evangelical churches—at least in my experience—encourage passivity, whether muted or outright. So Ruth, in the Old Testament, is not a story about a courageous woman sticking by her destitute mother-in-law, working hard, and making things happen so that “Mara” (bitterness) can be “Naomi” (pleasantness) again. It’s about Ruth’s wonderful feminine qualities in waiting for Boaz’s male leadership.
While these discourses emphasize ‘purity’ and, in so doing, do something to resist sexualization, I worry that the fear some evangelicals have of being “too feminist” actually means that they acquiesce to the broader culture’s objectification of women by insisting on a female passivity that’s JUST. NOT. THERE. in the Bible they claim to revere.
Ruth’s a kick-butt type of lady. So’s Jael. So’s Rahab. So’s Tamar. so are a number of others.
So here are my questions:
- Have evangelical churches offered a coherent alternative to the objectification of girls prevalent in American culture? (Because even where they’ve resisted sexualization—at least, sexualization outside marriage—they’ve emphasized passivity in that sphere?)
- Is it possible to do so while continuing (as some do) to insist upon women’s subordination to men in the church?
- What can churches, families, and individuals do to resist messages of sexualization?