I grew up in the 2000s, the golden era for the modern magazine. From a young age I watched my mum leaf through glossy pages, decorated with stick thin models flaunting the latest trends. To my young eyes, magazines became an aspirational handbook.
After watching The Devil Wears Prada and absorbing the stack of Cosmopolitans my mum collected, I started buying Shout magazine for myself. Shout was aimed at teenage girls and always had popular celebrities on the cover, like Lindsay Lohan, who I idolised at the time. Shout had the basics: teenage fashion trends, celebrity gossip and the hottest beauty products.
It was also rife with prolific body shaming. The magazine put down anything that broke the rules of fashion, it fought for conformity, thinness and encouraged that being popular was everything. I read these magazines every fortnight for many years, as did 520,000 other young girls. We soaked up the damaging rhetoric until Shout was in our heads - ‘I shouldn’t eat that’, ‘Why don’t I look like her?’, ‘I’ll do anything to fit in’. The magazine taught girls to improve themselves to fit the male gaze. Now I find myself wondering, has this had a long term impact on how I view the world?
Women are Still Objectified
Since 2012, body positivity activists have created space for women of all shapes and sizes to be acknowledged in the media. In addition, the Me Too. movement allowed victims of sexual abuse to be seen and heard, encouraging survivors to show solidarity with one another. These positive movements have encouraged people to call out objectifying behaviour when they see it. Despite the dismantling of many powerful abusers, women still face objectification.
Recently, PrettyLittleThing was forced to pull a YouTube advert for being overly sexualised and many complained that it was objectifying women. One model was depicted wearing a mesh bodysuit and over-the-knee boots with a neon pole between her legs. This is too sexualised for a clothing advert, especially when part of their target audience is under 18. The brand has also sparked controversy by launching a virtual influencer, or ‘virtual girl’, that many on Twitter have called out as creepy, unrelatable, and fuelling the age-old unattainable body image.
Although businesses should be responsible for the messages they put in adverts, I do not think that people should be subject to the same rules in their private lives. Everyone should be allowed to express themselves, however they want, on social media (as long as it is not hurting anyone). Policing what women wear and how they show it on social media perpetuates the ‘what was she wearing?’ victim-blaming that wrongly accuses women and their clothing as what dictates how they should be treated.
Research conducted in 2015 shows brands using sexual ads were evaluated less favourably than non-sexual ads. They also found that as the sexual content of an ad increased, the consumer’s buying intentions or memory decreased. This shows that sex does not sell, in fact, it has the opposite effect.
Over-sexualisation leads to objectification. According to research by The Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, frequent exposure to sexualised images can shift our cognitive mechanisms to see others as more like objects than people. This means that seeing overly sexualised adverts and media over time can lead to the increased objectification of women.
The sexualisation of young women and girls is harmful to their self-image. The explicit media bombarding us in music videos, magazines, movies, games and all over the internet has become virtually unavoidable. Frequent exposure is linked to internalised shame and anxiety, body image issues, depression and even eating disorders. Something has to change.
So why is it still being used? Reinforcing the idea of the perfect body type through campaigns such as ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ and over-sexualised imagery perpetuates insecurities fed to us from childhood. Teen spending adds £1.7 billion to the UK economy every year, so it is easy to see why marketers target young people with sexually explicit imagery whilst they are still figuring things out for themselves.
Can we fix it?
Education on women’s sexual and mental health needs to improve. While sexualised imagery remains prevalent online, Facebook removed 60 ads for women’s sexual health products because they deemed menstruation, menopause and fertility products to be ‘adult products and services’.
In school, sex education should include consent education, kids should be taught practical advice for real and tough situations. Every young person should know they have the right to boundaries, a positive body image, and confidence. Letting teens know that images of the ‘perfect body’ are edited and taken in a studio is a start. Encouraging health and mental wellbeing and treating others with respect despite what they are wearing, or their shape or size, would also be a step in the right direction.
Sex positivity is good, but there is a fine line between sex positivity and objectification. As individuals, we can challenge the sexualisation of culture and the harmful ways women are portrayed, for the betterment of society.