Why the over-sexualization of girls is not empowering
This month is dedicated to celebrating the triumphs and milestones that have been achieved for women’s rights and recognizing the incredible women who have torn down patriarchal barriers utilized to suppress generations worth of disenfranchised people. Yet, when looking back on the history of the feminist movement-- at the risk of sounding sexist or 60 years my senior– I can’t help but think that our society has driven completely off the deep end when it comes to female “empowerment” in the form of hyper-sexualization. A major shift has occurred in Western society (especially within Gen Z), towards a sexually liberated era – so modern – that a society that once frowned upon promiscuity, instead judges those who prefer modesty or abstinence. Being a feminist means encouraging all sorts of female power and choices, including choosing to not perpetuate the harmful habits that accompany participating in our own over-sexualization or hookup culture. The issue is that the second we as women start to judge ourselves and each other for our lack of “sexual empowerment”, we become part of the very issue we are trying to destroy. I’m here to argue that the sexual liberation of young girls is not empowering, it’s a toxic and self-inflicted faction of the patriarchy disguised as female empowerment. If feminism’s goal is to equitize the social aspect of our patriarchal society, then third wave feminism should not be promoting this.
I’ll start off by clarifying that individuality and self-appreciation are not the same as self-hyper-sexualization. One is with the aim of self-love; the other is complacent and egoistic. Many factions of this “new wave feminism” movement, such as hookup culture and hyper-sexualization in the media contribute to a culture that utilizes the sexualization of women to demean and suppress them. Women are not to blame for this, it’s an issue with the movement, not the individual, however, there’s no doubt that each of us is complicit in sustaining it. Many traits and activities that contribute to over-sexualization, such as makeup or revealing clothing, on their own are perfectly fine, especially the older the age when utilized. However, in this new dawn of a sexual revolution, the age of “maturity” seems to be lowering. This is thanks to social media providing an easy outlet for teens and pre-teens to post whatever content they desire on the internet without really thinking about the consequences of their actions.
Of course, I must acknowledge that many women and young girls who sexualize themselves do so as a result of being conditioned by society or by traumatic situations. And before I accidentally validate the unnecessary opinions of your conservative grandpa, I’ll add that a 12-year-old exploring the art of ‘makeup’ through Claire's lip-gloss and L'Oréal mascara is not self-sexualization; that on its own is self-expression which is completely valid and necessary for growth. However, when the aim becomes targeted for the male gaze and is utilized as a feminist front by young girls, feminism itself is harmed. One can’t begin to unpack the stifling impacts of the patriarchy, without acknowledging the all-consuming presence and severity of the male gaze. I’m writing this as a person who was once a 14-year-old girl who did the exact thing I believe our society should not encourage. Thus, I know that my intentions (and that of many girls) were to conform (to some extent) to the male gaze. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we’ve grown up in a society where validation from the patriarchy matters and even worse it heavily contributes to how we value ourselves. The male gaze in itself is inescapable, even attempting to not play into it is playing into the “pick me” fantasy of the male gaze.
This treatment of girls in the media is so profound that we rarely notice it, however, its impact on girls’ body image and vision of a “normal youth” is genuinely concerning. Shows such as Toddlers in Tiaras promote girls as young as three, gallivanting around on a stage in heavy makeup, the hairdo of a retired realtor and high heels—an obviously demeaning and ridiculous example of this hyper-sexualization. Part of "sexual liberation culture” is the glamorization of drastic age gap relationships (mostly young girl-older guy), and the stigmatization of sexual inactivity. Capitalism itself encourages and even profits from the hyper-sexualization of young girls in the media. From Britney Spears to Billie Eilish, the switch to sexy at the stroke of 18 is only a fraction of the hyper-sexualized media that young girls are subject to. Society extols the trope of “young girl” as attractive. Schoolgirl outfits are considered sexual, youthful features such as small proportions, lack of body hair or a shorter height considered more desirable. And while we can wish we lived in a world free of paedophiles and perverts, unfortunately, we don’t. Ignoring that reality won’t change them or make them vanish from the earth, it’ll give them more content and reason to justify their abhorrent behaviour. To quote YouTuber Madisyn Brown “you're not sexually liberated you're 16”.
Obviously, we don’t want to sexualize ourselves but that doesn’t stop us from ultimately being sexualized, ignoring this truth won’t change the harm it causes; it feeds into the desires of the very patriarchy we’re seeking to dismantle. I’ll even argue that this “sexual liberation” movement is part of “white women feminism”, prioritizing a very small and privileged pool of our population, allowing mostly socially beautiful, rich and often white women to participate. When compared to the horrific and disproportionately violent sexism and double standards that trans-women or women of colour face, prioritizing a movement of sexual liberation seems... pathetic.
Arguing that "sexual liberation” is feminist sidelines a majority of people who can’t participate in that movement or those who aren’t really accepted into it. Many content creators such as Kim Kardashian who post nude in the name of feminism, are the same creators promoting diet teas (laxatives) and appetite-suppressant gummy bears (also laxatives but kid-friendly version), fostering body insecurity towards a very susceptible audience. There is absolutely no doubt that even in the past five years there’s been a drastic shift in the overall appearance and style of younger girls, just take a look at a high school yearbook from 2015 versus one now.
Shows such as Euphoria, glamorize a realistic yet ridiculous portrayal of young women-- 16 year old's hooked on molly and producing pornographic tapes for the dark web – is evidently harmful to all its viewers. Especially when it’s portrayed with characters who find it empowering to post or sell their body on the internet. But sure, even I find it entertaining in a satirical manner, however, platforms such as Onlyfans have only enabled paedophilic culture, with girls as young as 18 being able to create and sell such content. Profiting off our bodies shouldn’t be something that’s empowering, whether it be on a (relatively) controlled platform or flat-out prostitution. However, when directors cast 20-30-year-olds to play high school students, naturally the social expectations for physicality are bound to change, not for the better. The issue isn’t necessarily with aged casting, when done in an obvious manner (à-la-Grease) it isn’t harmful. However, a 28-year-old Alexa Demie playing a 17-year-old is bound to create some self-hatred.
Social media movements such as “free the nipple” aren’t helpful when it comes to reaching that social equality, not because women shouldn’t normalize chests and call out double standards, but because it's capitalizing on the “sex sells” notion to grab attention. We should be able to argue for de-sexualization (and basic human rights) without having to capitalize on our own bodies. Sure, it’s great if you want to post your bust online, the sexualization of every facet of women’s bodies is a major issue, but, until a woman with visible body hair can post freely without being bombarded with comments about how “unclean” and “disgusting” she is; what good is participating in a movement that willingly or not feeds into our own objectification. I won’t argue that there’s any feasible (or even possible) solution for this, if I had one, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this on the unvacuumed floor of the ABH café, with two pints, an Irn-Bru and the nutrients of 87 pringles coursing through my veins. But I have a duty (as a feminist) to advocate for my younger self and all those subject to the negative effects of hyper-sexuality. It’s okay to be young and appear it as well, just for once, let's let girls be girls.
Illustration: Olivia Little