It’s written all over your Facebook

Confession: Facebook is a big part of my life. I was actually one of the first people to sign up for an account in 2004, and I haven’t looked back since. For a long time, Facebook felt like a warm, cozy living room where my friends and family could meet and stay connected. I would eagerly upload pictures from my latest trip or adventure, caption them with something clever, and tag my loved ones. I would pore over the pictures my friends and family posted, and would obsessively inspect any pictures they tagged of me.

Slowly, though, I started to notice something was wrong. Very wrong. Facebook was making me a nervous wreck.

Rather than that warm and fuzzy feeling of community, I started feeling hurt and insecure. More often than not, looking at pictures of my friends doing things without me gave me intense FOMO. Why didn’t they invite me? Don’t they like me anymore? If I posted pictures of myself or my life, I was consumed with the number of likes and comments my pictures received. No one liked this picture – they must think I’m [insert terrible thing here]. I also noticed that I was a little too invested in how I looked in pictures, and how my friends looked in pictures. I would feel embarrassed if I thought I looked silly in a picture (Quick! Untag before anyone notices!), and I would feel jealous if I saw a picture of a friend or acquaintance looking amazing. At times it seemed that Facebook was doing more harm than good in my life.

All that obsessing over what I looked like on Facebook made me wonder: Do other people feel this way about Facebook? Is it possible that self-objectification plays a role in how rotten I felt.

Researchers Evelyn Meier and James Gray wondered the same thing. They conducted a study with adolescent girls[1] to find out whether there’s a relationship between spending a lot of time on Facebook doing appearance-focused things (like looking at pictures and posting pictures) and bad outcomes like weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification. The girls in the study filled out a survey about how often they use certain appearance-focused Facebook features (e.g. updating a profile picture, posting a photo, looking at friends’ photos, untagging yourself in friends’ photos), and they also filled out scales designed to measure weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. The researchers found that the more often the girls reported using the appearance-focused Facebook features, the higher their weight dissatisfaction and the more they self-objectified. In other words, girls were more likely to feel bad about their weight and to look at themselves as objects if they spent more time on Facebook doing appearance-related stuff.

I don’t know about you, but all of this really rings true for me. I was feeling so bad about myself because of my obsession with Facebook pictures, but I also somehow felt addicted to it, and didn’t know what to do.

So about a year ago, I decided to try something: I stopped posting pictures of myself on Facebook. Let me tell you – it wasn’t easy. I had been so caught up in being my own worst critic and basing my self-worth on how other people responded to me. But I knew it had to stop. So one day, I just did it – I made myself quit posting pictures cold turkey. And do you know what happened?

I started to feel better.

Not right away, of course. At first it was like going through withdrawal. I craved the attention I had gotten from posting things. But slowly, day by day, week by week, it started to get easier. I stopped worrying so much about other people’s validation. If I was feeling good about myself for some reason, I didn’t have to worry that sharing that information on Facebook would somehow redefine that good feeling for me.

And I started noticing something else, too. Everyone around me suddenly seemed irrationally addicted to their phones and posting pictures on Facebook (side note: I think Instagram and Snapchat have burst on to the scene in a similar way). While having brunch with my friends, I would look around the table and notice people snapping pics of their food or of themselves and then posting them right away to Facebook or Instagram. It felt like everyone around me was more concerned with how their lives looked online, than how it felt to actually live them.

And what’s curious about that is it’s exactly what self-objectification is all about. Self-objectification happens when we think a lot about how we look to others – we actually look at ourselves from an outsider point of view – rather than focusing on how we feel on the inside. The authors of this study found that when we spend so much time on Facebook and focus on the way our lives look we objectify ourselves. After all, I had been so concerned with my appearance on Facebook that I started to forget how I actuallyfelt.

Since quitting my picture posting, I’ve noticed a huge change in the way my life feels. I will often go entire meals with friends without even looking at my phone (CRAZY, I know). I don’t take selfies on the regular or broadcast my experiences. I’ll still take pictures of the things I do or the places I go, but now I’ll share those pictures with my friends and family via email or text. And I admit, since my initial boycott, I’ve posted a picture of myself on Facebook here and there too (even though I continue to get anxious about those pics I post).

But what is most exciting about this personal experiment is that I am so much more present during my life experiences than I used to be. Rather than making sure to get a good shot of my food or a flattering selfie with my friend, I use my mental energy to live those experiences in the moment. I admire my food, and then dig right in and let my mouth explode with the flavors. I look my friends in the eyes and laugh and love with them – no documentation required. And nowadays, instead of having to make sure those experiences are properly reflected on my Facebook page, I smile to myself remembering the fun I had, and then move on to the next adventure, trying my best to experience my way through.


[1] Meier, E. P., & Gray, J. (2014). Facebook photo activity associated with body image disturbance in adolescent girls. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking17(4), 199-206.

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I Wanna Belly Dance with Somebody: Belly Dancing and Body Image

When I was a kid, gymnastics was my life. I spent hours and hours at the gym, and I was closer to my teammates than I was to my schoolmates. At school, I wrote all of my book reports and biography assignments about gymnasts, and I spent every recess balancing, swinging, flipping, and dancing. I felt the most free and comfortable when I was doing gymnastics. The training taught me how to use my body, and hone my body’s skills to accomplish exciting things. I was strong and flexible and focused.

That is, until one fateful day. It was a hot summer afternoon, and the doors to the gym were propped wide open to let in the breeze. My teammates and I were called into the dance studio for a talking-to from our coach. “It’s time to start thinking about the kinds of foods you eat,” she explained to the room full of 9-year-olds, “Gymnasts need to maintain a slender body, so no more hamburgers!”

A slender body? I thought to myself, Is there something wrong with my body? It had never occurred to me that my body needed to look a certain way for me to be a good gymnast. Don’t get me wrong, I was well aware that my favorite sport had a lot to do with performing. “Smile at the judges!” was our coaches’ constant refrain. But I had thought that what mattered most to those judges wasn’t my smile, but the ways I could control the difficult movements of my body to produce a performance of strength, grace, and skill. Now all I could think about was not looking fat.

Gymnastics is one of those interesting sports in which athleticism is paired with femininity – dance is another one. Dancers, like gymnasts, have to be supertough and superstrong, but they also usually have to be graceful and feminine – a tricky combo when it comes to things like body image (how you think about your own body). Research has shown, though, that not all dance is created equal. For example, ballet dancers[1] and exotic dancers (exotic dancers are defined as women who dance in sexualized settings for the pleasure of others)[2] are more likely to have negative body image than non-dancers, but hip hop dancers[3] and modern dancers[4] are more likely to have positive body image than non-dancers. Researchers think this might be partly because hip hop and modern dance are more “athletically-focused,” while ballet and exotic dance are more “appearance-focused.”

But what about types of dance that straddle the line between focusing on appearance and focusing on athleticism? What about gymnastics? Or perhaps even more apropos… belly dancing?

Psychologists Tiggemann, Coutts, and Clark[5] set out to discover if belly dancers have better body image the way hip hop dancers do, or if they have lower body image the way exotic dancers do. They recruited a bunch of belly dancers and non-dancers, and asked them to take a survey that measured things like body image and self-objectification.

Full disclosure: I was on the edge of my seat as I read this paper. As someone who doesn’t know a lot about belly dancing, I could totally see the results going either way. On the one hand, being a belly dancer means that you have to learn how to use your muscles and move your body in a very particular way. Just like gymnastics or other sports, belly dancing forces you to connect with your body, feel your body, and use your body – feminists would say that in this way, belly dancing, like other sports, is an embodying activity. But on the other hand, being a belly dancer means performing a sorta sexualized dance, in revealing clothing. There’s all that male gaze stuff to consider.

Not knowing what you’re going to find is what makes research freaking awesome. And in this case, the results do not disappoint.

It turns out belly dancing is a lot more like hip hop or modern dancing than exotic dancing. Even though there are sexual components to belly dancing (read: appearance-focus), belly dancers find themselves much more concerned with the athletic components of their craft. They love belly dance because it allows them to reconnect with their bodies, it makes them feel confident, and it actually helps them move beyond the gaze of others.[6] Belly dancing makes women feel embodied.

I asked one of the researchers, Marika Tiggemann, why she thought belly dancing was related to better body image. She says, “Participation in ‘embodying activities’ means that you are really ‘in’ to them; they involve an inter-connectedness of the mind and body. This means you are both more appreciative of what your body can do for you, and less concerned about how it looks (at least while engrossed in the activity). These things make you less critical of and feel better about your body.”

Here’s another reason research is rad: sometimes when you’re finished, you have more questions than answers.

The researchers in this study think belly dancing is different from exotic dancing because exotic dancing is usually done professionally, while belly dancing is usually recreational. If belly dancing is such an embodied activity, what about other recreational forms of dance or sport that blend both athleticism and appearance? What about those pole dancing classes I keep hearing about? What about figure skating or – wait for it – gymnastics?

We’ll have to wait for researchers to catch up with my burning questions, but I will tell you this: I wasn’t in love with gymnastics as a kid because I thought it was sexy. I wasn’t in it for the approval of the judges, my coaches, or anyone else. That’s why when my coach told us to ditch the hamburgers, I was crushed. Gymnastics, for me, had never been about what my body looked like. I loved gymnastics because it made me feel alive. It taught me to take up space with my body and love what my body could do and it made me feel powerful. If belly dancing feels to belly dancers anything like gymnastics felt to me, I say, keep on dancing!

 


[1] Pierce, E. F., & Daleng, M. L. (1998). Distortion of body image among elite female dancers. Perceptual and motor skills, 87(3), 769-770.

[2] Downs, D. M., James, S., & Cowan, G. (2006). Body objectification, self-esteem, and relationship satisfaction: A comparison of exotic dancers and college women. Sex Roles, 54(11-12), 745-752.

[3] Swami, V., & Tovée, M. J. (2009). A comparison of actual-weight discrepancy, body appreciation, and media influence between street-dancers and non-dancers. Body Image, 6, 304–307.

[4] Langdon, S., & Petracca, G. (2010). Tiny dancer: Body image and dancer identity in female modern dancers. Body Image, 7, 360–363.

[5] Tiggemann, M., Coutts, E., & Clark, L. (2014). Belly Dance as an Embodying Activity?: A Test of the Embodiment Model of Positive Body Image. Sex Roles, 71(5-8), 197-207.

[6] Moe, A. M. (2012). Beyond the belly: An appraisal of middle eastern dance (aka belly dance) as leisure. Journal of Leisure Research, 44, 201-233.

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Objects Don’t Object, or, How Objectification Discourages Activism

Here at SPARK, if there’s one thing we all love, it’s activism. We protest and picket and petition for change.  We struggle to take sexy back with a fiery passion that burns deep within all of us – a SPARK that ignites us (pun very much intended).

Being an activist isn’t always easy. In fact, it usually isn’t easy. Every day, we fight against a world in which sexualization is rampant and nobody seems to care about it. As activists, we expect certain things to get in our way – it’s par for the course. A petition we start never really takes off. The editor-in-chief of a magazine refuses to meet with us. We can’t decide whether to ignore those street harassers or to give them a piece of our minds. These are barriers we know we will face, and we prepare ourselves to keep pushing anyway.

But not all barriers are so predictable. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more women and girls protesting the sexualization they face in our society? You might think (at least I did) that being subjected to sexual objectification on a regular basis would be more than enough friction to light that spark to dosomething about it. Why wouldn’t everyone want to get on board?

Dr. Rachel Calogero, a researcher at the University of Kent, wondered about this too. But Calogero had a trick up her sleeve. She believed that the reason women didn’t sign up in droves to tear down the system is because they see the system as inevitable, and therefore good enough. This idea, known as system-justification theory, suggests that women come to see themselves the way society sees them, and so they justify the status quo.

What if, Calogero wondered, self-objectification (or seeing ourselves as objects) leads women to justify the system? In other words, maybe what’s going on with so many women is they’re looking at themselves from this outsider perspective, and that makes them empathize with that perspective and then makes them more likely to justify it.

Calogero took this idea one step further. In her recent study[1], she asked first, whether self-objectification leads women to justify the system, and second, whether justifying the system leads women to engage in less activism. After all, if you convince yourself that the system is just the way things are, why would you try to change it?

To test this hypothesis, Calogero did an experiment. She put women into two groups: one group was asked to write about a time in which they felt sexually objectified; the other group was asked to write about what they would do if they won $50. In this kind of study, the first group is called the experimental group and the second group is called the control group. We know that writing about being sexually objectified causes women to think about themselves as sexual objects, so being in the experimental group caused the women in that group to self-objectify more than the women in the control group. The women in both groups then answered questions about system-justification and their intentions to engage in feminist activism. By comparing these two groups, Calogero was able to find out whether self-objectification led women to justify the system more, which in turn led women to engage in less activism.

I’ll be blunt: her findings are depressing. In my activist haze, I had figured that women exposed to our damaging sexualized world would sooner or later end up right there next to me in the picket line. It’s only a matter of time, I thought. It turns out – oh the bitter irony – that our sexualized culture may do the exact opposite. Rather than create activists, the constant sexualization of women in our society actually discourages them.

Calogero’s study provides evidence that living in a world that sexualizes women and causes us to self-objectify may in fact put a psychological damper on fighting back. She argues, “Self-objectification guides women’s attention to their appearance and leads them to comply with traditional gender roles, thereby garnering their participation in the very system that maintains their disadvantaged status” (p. 317). In other words, when we focus on our appearances instead of how we feel or what we are capable of, we are using our energy to strengthen a system that harms us when we could be fighting against it! As much as I hate to say it, it makes sense. I mean, my brain freezes when I’m being ogled by random guys. Rather than being outraged that the sexualization of women in our society is teaching these men that they can stare at my body all they want, I feel like running away to hide. And sometimes, I don’t just feel bad for a minute or two – I feel bad for weeks or months, constantly thinking about how I appear to others, rather than focusing on how unacceptable it is to be sexually objectified on the regular.

Lucky for us, there is some good news. As activists, we are living, breathing proof that existing in a sexualized world doesn’t keep all of us from fighting back. But let’s be clear: being activists doesn’t make us immune to sexual objectification. After all, we are only human; I’d be lying to myself (and you, dear reader) if I said I never worried about my appearance or looked at myself from an outsider perspective. But somehow we SPARKers have still managed to find the strength and the passion to resist that oppression. Now that we know what a struggle that really is for so many girls and women who are not fighting alongside us, I think Calogero’s research should be a call for us to support each other even more. Every little piece of activism adds fuel to our fire, and every girl can be an activist stoking the flames. A friend who signs a petition is an ally in our cause. A classmate who speaks up against sexually harassing language is a champion for us. Our activist allies are all around us, just waiting to be encouraged. Our culture may be like a blanket of ash on our psyches, but when that little fire inside of me meets that little fire inside of you – inside of all activists and activists-to-be – we together can SPARK a change.

 

 


[1] Calogero, R. M. (2013). Objects don’t object: Evidence that self-objectification disrupts women’s social activism. Psychological Science, 24(3), 312-318.

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3 Components of Rape Culture and What You Can Do to Fight Back

Original post on APA’s Public Interest Directorate

**Trigger warning. This blog is about sexual violence.**

Let’s make something clear right from the start: Rape is caused by rape culture.

Rape culture has many ingredients, and like any successful recipe, once you blend them together, it’s harder to taste the individual flavors. Rape culture is so entrenched in our society, and its components so ubiquitous, we may sense that something doesn’t taste right, but be at a loss to pinpoint the problem.

This blog will break down the main components of rape culture and then give you concrete ways to combat it.

#1: Power, Anger, & Hyper-masculinity

While it may be true that men do the vast majority of the raping, men who rape did not become rapists in a vacuum.

Our society values men most when they adhere to the harsh expectations ofhyper-masculinity. Being hyper-masculine has a lot to do with power. Men learn that they should always be dominant, and if their dominance is threatened, they should express the only emotion they are allowed – anger. Research shows that most rapes are exercises of power or anger.

Hyper-masculinity also expects that men are always up for sex. Men apparently have such uncontrollable sex drives that once they’re aroused, there’s no turning back. Let’s say a woman consents to certain levels of sexual activity, like kissing or touching, and her male partner is aroused. If she dares to say no to sex after “leading him on,” then some would say he is justified in raping her. After all, as Virginia state senator Richard Black said, rape is “human nature.”

While we can all be grateful that politicians who make such dangerous statements are generally criticized these days, rape is still justified through the use of that ol’ “human nature” chestnut. But men aren’t rapists by nature. Men are socialized in a rape culture that promotes rigid expectations of masculinity. Simply blaming men without examining masculinity buys right into rape culture and sells men short. And let’s not forget that men and boys are raped too.

#2: Sexual Objectification of Women’s Bodies

Our society’s obsession with the appearance of women’s bodies sustains rape culture. Girls learn from a young age that what matters most about them is the way they look, and boys are taught to value this in girls above all else. Because of our culture’s relentless focus on appearance, women are constantly turned into objects. Women literally are hamburgers in some advertisements, or are cut into sexualized pieces in others.

This obsession with women’s appearance causes women to look at their own bodies as sexual objects, a phenomenon known in psychology as self-objectification. Research shows that self-objectification is linked to body shame, disordered eating, depression, substance abuse, and sexual dysfunction.

The problem with turning women’s bodies into objects is that objects are less than human. Objects don’t have feelings or attitudes or intelligence – objects are there for us to use. Once a woman is seen as an object (and in particular, a sexual object), it is much easier to commit violence against her.

#3: Systemic and Institutional Support

When we say that something is a “systemic” problem, we mean that it spreads throughout the entire system (in this case, our society), and when we say that something is “institutional,” we mean that there are structures and mechanisms in place to maintain something. Rape culture is both.

For example, when rape victims seek help, they must often answer invasive and offensive questions to defend the circumstances of the rape. Police may ask: “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking?” “Did you flirt?” “Did you say ‘no’ loud enough?” “Did you fight back?” “Did you scream?” Furthermore, in hundreds of thousands of instances, victims’ rape kits have never been analyzed. This isn’t one victim, one rapist, one police officer – it’s not an individual problem. This is embedded in our very systems of social order.

Or take the case of politicians arguing that only some sorts of rape are “honest,” or “legitimate,” that women frequently fake having been raped, that marital rape shouldn’t be a crime, that pregnancies resulting from rape are really just gifts from God, and that because rape is inevitable anyway (there’s that “human nature” gem again), why shouldn’t women just “sit back and enjoy it?” In fact, many politicians still refuse to take sexual assault in the military or in prisonsseriously, and it doesn’t get more institutional than that.

Thankfully, many of these politicians have since lost their elections. But in many cases, the damage of this systemic rhetoric is already done. Young women who have come forward about their rapes have been bullied by their peers, ridiculed by their communities, ignored by the authorities, and in these three cases have committed suicide. Though it is systems and institutions that uphold rape culture, it is individual lives that are destroyed.

How to Fight Back

Preventing rape means changing an entire culture. Here’s how to get started:

  • Encourage boys and men to express emotions and unravel hyper-masculinity:William Pollack’s work is a great place to start, and look out for a documentary on the topic coming soon.
  • Push back against sexual objectification: Evidence-based activists at the girl-fueled organization, SPARK, provide a great model and the Miss Representation documentary is a must.
  • Rape prevention courses: Foubert, Godin, and Tatum found that men can take a rape prevention class in college that affects them for years. The course teaches empathy and then how to intervene in dangerous situations, support a rape survivor, and even confront others who tell jokes about rape. Another study by Klaw and colleagues found similar results. Get involved here.
  • Engage bystanders: Cases like the Steubenville rapes remind us there are often times when people see something bad happening, and don’t know how to stop it. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides tons of research and informationabout how to reverse this trend.
  • Change public perception of what’s acceptable: Several successful anti-rape campaigns all around the globe are working to dismantle rape culture. Check out the “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada that has cut sexual assaults in Vancouver by 10%. A campaign in the UK takes a similar approach. Feminist organizations like Take Back the Night and V-Day have long histories of pushing back against sexual violence. And remember that women have many male allies committed to tearing down rape culture (including President Obama).

Rape culture may be a giant multi-faceted problem, but if we commit to addressing each of these damaging components in turn, we can move ever closer to eradicating rape for good.

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Learning how to lovehate

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to wear.leggings

I mean, it shouldn’t really be that hard to figure out. Something goes on top, something goes on the bottom… and that’s about it. But especially as a feminist who fancies feminine fashion (say that 10 times fast!), I often struggle with how to dress.

Take, for example, leggings. For those who don’t wear them, leggings are like footless tights, but they are usually made of thicker material (read: can’t see through them). Leggings are everywhere. They are in all of the catalogues I receive in the mail, worn by young and old, seen on the web, TV and in the fashion mags, they’re multicolored and patterned and dancing up the walls of department stores. It’s leggings world, people.

So why do I lovehate leggings? That is, I really do love them – so versatile! so comfortable! – and I really do hate them – skintight! unforgiving! sexualizing! – at the same time. It’s not that I love to hate leggings, or even that I hate to love them. I am genuinely conflicted about how I feel about them. I know there are huge fashion corporations out there marketing leggings to me as something hip and chic and worn by everyone, and I hate buying into that crap. But I also really enjoy fashion and think it’s fun to follow trends and use my clothing as part of how I express myself. Then again, I know that women in our society are mainly valued based on our appearances, and I want to be valued for more than just the clothes I choose.

So what’s a thinking, feeling, media-literate, fashion-forward feminist to do? Am I the only one out there who lovehates picking an outfit every day?

According to researchers Sue Jackson, Tiina Vares, and Rosalind Gill, I am far from alone. In their recent study,[1] they asked 71 pre-teen girls to record themselves in video diaries for a month. In the videos, the researchers encouraged the girls to talk about the pop culture they enjoyed, the fashion trends they followed (or rejected), and their thoughts and feelings about both.

When the researchers sat down to analyze the videos, they found something (not that) surprising: girls’ feelings about pop culture and fashion are complicated. For example, girls talked about the fine line between wanting to appear ‘mature’ and attractive to boys, while at the same time expressing absolute disgust with other girls and women who dress too sexily. Elodie, a 12-year-old, says that girls at her school aspire to look like “the whole Playboy Mansion image. … It’s sick, like, it’s seriously sick!” Though she obviously doesn’t approve, she still seems to care about what boys think, she just thinks the boys her age aren’t “mature” enough to recognize girls’ efforts: “They wouldn’t notice any kind of that stuff.” Elodie is dealing with that thorny double standard that expects girls to work on being attractive and sexy to boys, but not too sexy, because if a girl is too sexy, then she’s “seriously sick!” It’s a tricky balance to strike, and so for Elodie, her feelings about what to wear are complicated.

Girls in the study also talked about totally understanding that the media markets clothes to them by using images of celebrities and sexuality. And at the same time, they embraced the trends of fashion and were enthusiastic about the creativity and self-expression fashion allowed. 11-year-old Iris, for example, says, “Ads can influence us in different ways especially us girls.” Just a moment later, she adds, “I have loads of clothes and everything,” showing us that collecting clothes is something she likes to do, even while she recognizes being influenced by advertisements. Once again, it’s complicated.

So much of the research we present in these Research Blogs is pretty straightforward. Like that teaching men rape prevention actually works, for example. And this study does showcase how unfair it is that girls feel they have to try to look sexy but not slutty (double standards are straightforwardly bigoted). But I loved this study because just like the girls in the video diaries, I am a woman who is, if nothing else, complex. I love things and hate them at the same time and all the time: my job, my body, my decisions, my relationships. As a human being I have depth and intricacy and contradiction all wrapped up in this thing I call my-self.

But more often than not, our culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for this wishy-washiness. We want people to say what they mean and mean what they say! We yearn for consistency and stability and dependability. That’s why we love to label people as simply one thing or another. Are you liberal or conservative? Are you fat or thin? Are you a prude or a slut?

Real life isn’t like that. Usually, a person is liberal in some ways, conservative in others. A woman is pretty much never simply a naïve, angelic, prude, nor is she simply an oversexed slut. Life isn’t simple, and neither are people.

So instead of looking at that tangled knot within myself (like so many of my necklaces) as something I should fix, I think this study can empower us to embrace the goodbad, the yesno, the lovehate in ourselves. After all, feminism is complicated – empowerment itself is complicated. There are no simple solutions and there is no single right answer (and if someone tells you otherwise, they’re probably selling something). Leggings aren’t good and they aren’t bad either. So even though I may never really know what to wear, I can rest assured that my feminist sisters are open to the complexity in me, and there’s nothing not to lovelove about that.

[1] Jackson, S., Vares, T., Gill, R. (2012). ‘The whole playboy mansion image’: Girls’ fashioning and fashioned selves within a postfeminist culture. Feminism & Psychology, 23(2), 143-162.

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How Being Ogled by Men Made my Brain Freeze

It was on a hot summer day a few weeks ago that I decided to sit outside in a park to do some writing. Ninety-degree heat isn’t for the faint of heart, and the only sane thing to wear on a day like that is shorts and a tank top. What can I say? I like it hot. I set myself up under a sprawling oak tree, and started typing away on my laptop.

I hadn’t been working for more than 15 minutes, when I noticed a group of guys staring at me. I pretended not to notice them whispering to one another and looking in my direction. Maybe they’re looking at someone else, I thought. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were looking at and talking about me. I tried to ignore them. Without thinking, I checked that my belly was sucked in and my shorts were pulled up in the back. I looked at my laptop and willed myself to work – but I couldn’t. Why did I wear this? I scolded myself. Why can’t I think straight anymore?

As it turns out, this brain-lock phenomenon I was experiencing is something researchers have been wondering about for a while. Many researchers believe that when women start thinking about their bodies as objects (i.e. when they self-objectify) the brain energy they are using to do this takes away valuable brain energy to do other things. In other words, if those whispering guys made me self-objectify my body, the brain space I used thinking about my body (and trying to see my body the way those outsiders were seeing my body) took away some of the brain space I was trying to put into my writing – and it made it harder for me to use my brain for the task I wanted to focus on.

But does this theory really hold up? Researchers Diane Quinn, Rachel Kallen, Jean Twenge, and Barbara Fredrickson[1] decided to find out. They asked young women to step into a dressing room with a full-length mirror, try on a piece of clothing, and then take a little test. Half of these women tried on a sweater, and the other half tried on a one-piece swimsuit.

ColorThen, while still in the dressing room, all alone, the women took a Stroop test.  If you’ve never heard of the Stroop test, you are in for some fun! Psychologists have been using this task for a long time to measure people’s attention and focus. Here’s how it works: People are shown a bunch of color words (e.g. blue, red, green), and each of those words is printed in a color that is different from the word (see the picture here for an example). One at a time, a word flashes on a screen, and the person has to see how quickly they can name the color the word is printed in (not the color that is spelled out). Try it yourself with the picture here – the first answer would be “green” because the word “yellow” is printed in green. It’s kinda hard, right?!

So, where were we? Oh right – the women were sitting in dressing rooms, wearing either sweaters or swimsuits, and taking a Stroop test. While they took the test, a computer measured how quickly the women were able to name the correct colors. Once all of the women had finished, the researchers compared the reaction times of the women who had worn swimsuits to those who had worn sweaters.

And I bet you can guess the results! The women who were asked to try on swimsuits performed the Stroop test more slowly. It took the women in swimsuits longer to name each color correctly than it took the women in sweaters. Even though they were alone in the dressing room!

What can we make of this? The researchers think that when the women put on the swimsuits and looked at themselves in the mirror, they immediately started to self-objectify (I mean, seriously – how could you not?). Being in this state of self-objectification caused the women to spend some of their precious mental energy on thinking about their bodies instead of thinking about the Stroop test. And that’s why they performed more poorly on the test.

No wonder I couldn’t think once those guys started leering at me. As soon as my attention was focused on my body, my brain was missing some of the energy it needed to work right.

But I think the problem is deeper than that. As soon as I noticed those men looking my body, the first thing I wanted to do was hide. I immediately tried to “fix” my body and asked myself why I had chosen to wear shorts and a tank top in ninety-degree heat. Wait a minute! Why shouldn’t I wear those clothes if I want to??

The answer is: I should wear whatever makes me feel awesome. Society, though – society could use a makeover.

Women think about their bodies – and self-objectify – because we live in a society that constantly objectifies us to begin with. We are trying to beat society to the punch. “If I evaluate my body before the world does, nobody can hurt me,” we think to ourselves. Thinking about it this way, it’s pretty obvious that the problem lies with society, and not with individual women. It wasn’t my fault those men ogled me. It wasn’t the clothes I was wearing. It wasn’t the way I was sitting or the sweat rolling down my neck. It was our patriarchal society oozing from the eyes and mouths of those creepers. And until we can dismantle this sexist culture, women will continue to blame ourselves for feeling paralyzed and brain-locked as soon as our bodies are noticed.


[1] Quinn, D. M., Kallen, R. W., Twenge, J. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). The disruptive effect of self-objectification on performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 59-64.

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How Teaching Men Not to Rape Can Work Long-Term

**Trigger warning. This blog is about sexual violence.**

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been thinking about the Steubenville rapes for a while now. You’ve seen the horrific details of the crime, the multiple sad excuses for journalism, and the even more disturbing public outrage when the rapists got what they had coming. You’ve tried to boost your ever-depleting faith in humanity by clinging to superfab feminist responses like this one that cringes over the sickening media coverage of the trial, this one addressing rape culture, or this one about teaching our sons not to rape. But possibly my favorite feminist response to this atrocity came from political analyst, Zerlina Maxwell.

In case you missed it, on March 5th, Zerlina Maxwell, a rape survivor herself, appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. The segment was centered around the idea that the solution to rape is simple – just give women guns! *Facepalm* Maxwell disagreed, and instead made one of the most obvious (and brilliant) arguments about the kind of rape prevention we really need in this country. Here’s what she said:

“I think that the entire conversation is wrong. I don’t want anybody to be telling women anything. I don’t want men to be telling me what to wear and how to act, not to drink. And I don’t, honestly, want you to tell me that I needed a gun in order to prevent my rape. … I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention.”

This is what I like to call a “duh” moment – you mean we should direct rape prevention toward rapists? Who would’ve thought! (Obviously not Sean Hannity, if you watch his response, or the droves of people who sent Maxwell rape and death threats after the show).

Lots of people seem positively astonished at the idea that men could be taught not to rape. But what does the research show? Well, to start with, ad campaigns like the ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign (see the picture here) in Vancouver have cut sexual assaults by unheard-of amounts. But Maxwell’s message could be taken even further – what if men could actually take a class that teaches them about rape and how to prevent it?

Sound outlandish? For sure. The crazier thing, though, is that research shows it works.

Researchers John Foubert, Eric Godin and Jerry Tatum[1] decided to stop rape at the source – the men who commit rape or stand by and do nothing to stop it. First, they took a close look at a rape-prevention class male college freshmen were required to take. The class started by showing the men a DVD that detailed a male-on-male rape experience. Focusing on a male victim helped the men in the class start to imagine how being a victim of rape might actually feel. Once the men started to feel empathy toward rape survivors, they were told to close their eyes and imagine another horrific scene: a woman close to them has had too much to drink and is raped while someone stands by and does nothing. Just imagining your mother, sister, girlfriend or grandmother being raped hurts a lot – and this exercise helped the men feel even more empathy toward rape survivors. After the thought exercises, the men were given the chance to brainstorm about ways they could intervene if they saw a rape about to occur. They were also taught other valuable skills like how to spot true consent, how to support a rape survivor, and how to confront others who tell jokes about rape, demean women, or brag about abusing women.

I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, this all sounds great, but I bet those men forgot all they learned faster than my heart beats during a True Blood finale.” But it turns out the men who participated in this program were still affected by it years later! So, how could a program that only lasted about an hour work so well for so long?

Well, one of the most important parts of this particular training program was its emphasis on alcohol. Most of the rapes on college campuses involve alcohol,[2] so talking to men about alcohol-related situations is crucial. Years later, when the researchers asked these men about how their attitudes or behaviors had changed because of the program, nearly half (46%) talked about how they’d started to be more careful about sexual activity when alcohol was involved.[3]

But that’s not the only reason this class rocked the boat and stayed afloat. This program worked because it met men where they are. Most rapes are committed by regular guys, not scary-dark-alley-evil-monster-men-in-ski-masks. But most men don’t see themselves as potential rapists. So, what to do? This program tapped into something most men do think about themselves – that they have the potential to help others and to intervene in dangerous situations. Basically, it let men feel like heroes! Add to that the ways the program helped the men to imagine the pain and agony that accompany rape, and presto – a new squadron of rape-preventers is born.

Zerlina Maxwell isn’t crazy. She’s not out of touch or making things up. In fact, as the research shows us, she’s right on the money. The last thing women need is one more victim-blaming tool: “Oh, she didn’t have a gun with her, she must have wanted it.” Real rape prevention addresses the toxic rape culture that encourages men to view women as objects, to cover up reported rapes, and to laugh about this inexcusable violence against their sisters. And most importantly, real rape prevention really works.


[1] Foubert, J.D., Godin, E. E., Tatum, J. L. (2010). In their own words: Sophomore college men describe attitude and behavior changes resulting from a rape prevention program 2 years after their participation. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(12), 2237-2257.

[2] Lisak, D. & Miller, P. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17, 73-84.

[3] Foubert, J. D. et. al. (2010)

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Sexualization in Song Lyrics has Skyrocketed in the Past Decade

There I was. Sitting at my computer, doing a little bit of work (and a little too much procrastinating), and bobbing my head to some new tunes I had playing on my headphones. All of a sudden, I froze.

“But man I ain’t never seen an a** like hers

That p***y in my mouth had me at a loss for words

I told her to back it up like burp burp

And make that a** jump like shczerp shczerp.”[1]

Ahh!, I think, I hate when male artists sexualize and degrade women in their lyrics! I quickly switched to a new station – Nicki Minaj, a woman. Much better. Until…

“And I think I like him better with the fitted cap on

He ain’t even gotta try to put the mac on

He just gotta give me that look, when he give me that look

Then the panties comin’ off, off, unh.”[2]

Noooo!, I think to myself, Even women are in on it! It’s everywhere!

You’d pretty much have to have been living under a rock not to notice how sexually degrading song lyrics are these days. And as I discovered, men are not the only ones to blame. With young people consuming about 2.5 hours of music everyday (about 75% of it on computers and MP3 players),[3] it is more important than ever to take a look at what exactly this music is communicating.

Lots of research has analyzed music lyrics to determine how much of what we listen to is sexual in nature. But many studies don’t take into consideration whether those sexual references are degrading, and even fewer studies have looked at how music lyrics have changed over the years. A recent study by researchers at Brigham Young University does both of these things – and the results are not exactly what the researchers (or I) expected.

But before I give away the ending, let me set the scene. Researchers P. Cougar Hall, Joshua West and Shane Hill wanted to find out how sexualization in popular music lyrics has changed in the period from 1959-2009.[4] To find out, they looked at the lyrics of the Billboard Hot 100 year-end most popular songs (across all genres) in the years 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, and 2009. That means in total, the researchers analyzed the lyrics of exactly 600 songs!

Not just any sexual reference in the lyrics counted as sexualization, however. The researchers were very careful about making a distinction between degrading and non-degrading sexual lyrics. After all, as the researchers point out, lyrics that describe mutual respect between consenting sexual partners may actually be beneficial to adolescents, because they present a healthy and responsible sexuality.[5] So for this study, only lyrics that were determined to be degrading were considered sexualizing. Degrading sexualizing lyrics were defined as those in which “one person has a large sexual appetite, the other person is sexually objectified, and sexual value is placed solely on physical characteristics.”[6]

Now, if I were to ask you to make your best guess (in science, someone’s best guess is called their hypothesis) as to whether newer or older songs contained more degrading sexualization, you would probably guess newer – and you would be right. “[We found] an enormous difference between [lyrics from] Ray Charles or Elvis and what we saw with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears,” the researchers noted in an interview with Deseret News.[7]

But you may be surprised to learn that the increase in degrading sexualizing lyrics was not at all gradual. Instead, according to Cougar Hall, starting in 1999, it “skyrocketed.” Between 1999 and 2009, the amount of degrading sexualization found in the lyrics tripled. Furthermore, non-White artists produced degrading sexualized lyrics almost 3 times as often as White artists in 1999 and 2009, and male artists were more than twice as likely as female artists to perform lyrics with sexualization.

If music lyrics have changed so much over the past decade, I can only presume that the rest of our culture might be heading down the same path. And I’m not gonna lie – I’ve noticed significantly more degrading sexualization of women on billboards, in magazines, and on TV in recent years. I think these researchers’ discovery is just one small square of a massive media quilt, and I think that quilt is smothering us.

“Popular music can teach young men to be sexually aggressive and treat women as objects while often teaching young women that their value to society is to provide sexual pleasure for others,” the researchers note. It’s time to reverse this trend. When girls and women listen to hip new music, they shouldn’t have to endure an onslaught of disrespect and sexualization. So no, you won’t catch me at a Lil Wayne concert this year or downloading Nicki Minaj’s latest. Why? Because money talks. And if I can use my dollars to tell the music industry that I’m not buying this degrading garbage, then maybe they’ll stop selling it.


[1] From “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne.

[2] From “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj

[3] Roberts, D.F., Foehr, U.G., & Rideout, V. (2010). Generagion M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm

[4] Hall, P.C., West, J.H., Hill, S. (2011). Sexualization in lyrics of popular music from 1959 to 2009: Implications for sexuality educators. Sexuality & Culture, published online: 01 September 2011.

[5] US Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). The surgeon general’s call to action to promote sexual health and responsible behavior. MD: Rockville.

[6] Hall, et. al., p. 4.

[7] Collins, L.M. (8 September, 2011). BYU study: Sexualized song lyrics increasing dramatically. Deseret News. Retrieved from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700177458/BYU-study-Sexualized-song-lyrics-increasing-dramatically.html?pg=1.

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How the Media Stole My “Sexy”

As the summer days begin to shorten and autumn looms near, I sit here in amazement that it has been almost a year since the SPARK Summit!  On that inspiring day in October, loads of women, young and old, gathered to push back against the rampant media sexualization of women and girls. The Summit kick-started a movement that continues to fight for girls’ rights to enabling conditions for developing healthy sexuality – a sexuality that is not defined by someone else, especially not the media. In short, SPARK encourages women and girls to “take sexy back!”

But does “taking sexy back” imply that we women have somehow lost our “sexy”? Au contraire. I would say it was stolen from us.

The SPARK Summit, and the movement that it ignited, was in part a response to the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.[1][2] This report compiled mountains of important research on how girls are sexualized in U.S. culture, and particularly in the media. (CLICK HERE for a copy!) This research shows that female characters in movies or music videos are not as important as male characters, and are often overly sexualized. For example, in G-rated films, 75% of all of the characters are male. In music videos on BET, 84% of the videos include sexual imagery, and 71% of women in these videos wear provocative clothing or nothing at all, compared with only 35% of men. This kind of sexual objectification, which conceals how complex and intelligent real women and girls are, shows how undervalued women are in our society – apparently, we’re only good for looking at. Why can’t women be presented as thinking, feeling human beings instead of just decorations for car or perfume advertisements?

Presenting women in this narrow and overly sexualized way actually steals our “sexy” right out from under us. How can women and girls be expected to understand our own sexualities when we are constantly bombarded with increasingly narrow definitions of what society says is “sexy”? I don’t know about you, but the times I feel sexiest look (and more importantly, feel) pretty much nothing like what the media prescribes.

Still, I can’t help but feel like I must be doing something wrong if I don’t look like a super model – and I’m not alone. According to the APA Report, girls as young as 12 already worry more about how their bodies look than what their bodies can do. This may be why, for example, girls start underestimating their math abilities relative to boys right around puberty – when they have to start worrying about how their maturing bodies look – and eventually drop out of higher-level math courses altogether.

Sometimes seeing this research with our own eyes and talking about it with others is just what we need to remember that we’re not alone. The SPARK Summit brought tons of diverse women together in person and virtually so that we could each “take sexy back” from the thieving media and support one another while doing it. I had the awesome opportunity to walk around the Summit asking women what they thought about the media, sexualization, and how to push back. Take a look at this video to see what the girls and women had to say.

Lucky for women and girls everywhere, October 22, 2010 was only the beginning of the SPARK movement. Since that momentous day, a grassroots effort has begun to reclaim our sexualities from the debilitating grasp of the media. And as for me, though it’s definitely a work in progress, I’ll never stop trying to reclaim my “sexy,” no matter what the media throws my way.


[1] American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf

 

[2] For even more information about the media sexualization of girls and what we can all do to push back, see Lamb, S., & Brown, L.M. (2006). Packaging girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers’ schemes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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Some Environments are Just Plain Worse: What it’s Like to be a Hooters Girl

Cross-posted at SPARK

Women get sexually objectified all over the place. As recent installments of this blog have made clear, music videos and advertisements are prime examples of the sexualization of women in the media. This constant sexualization of girls and women makes me super-skeptical when I hear people arguing that women and girls have achieved equality – as if! And the media isn’t the only place women are sexually objectified. As girls and women living in this male-dominated world, we experience sexual objectification first-hand on a regular basis. Why, just this morning I was forced to look straight ahead and ignore the “hey baby” coming from an unknown man as I quickened my step and made my way to the subway.

As treacherous as the streets of New York may be, however, I am aware that even these sidewalks offer me some protection – at least when I walk past a creepy guy on my way to the subway I have the luxury of pretending he doesn’t exist. But for women who spend their time in beauty pageants, for example, or as cheerleaders, cocktail waitresses or “Miller Lite Girls,” being sexually objectified simply comes with the territory. Let’s face it: as far as sexual objectification goes, there are some environments that are just plain worse than others.

Researchers Lauren Moffitt and Dawn Szymanski[1] have a special term for these kinds of places – they call them sexually objectifying environments, or SOEs for short. SOEs typically expect men and women to behave in traditional male and female roles, give women very little power, and encourage the men to stare at the women. One such SOE that fits these criteria to a T is that notorious, all-American “neighborhood” restaurant, Hooters.

Hooters’ website is splashed with images of half-naked women and hamburgers. Tongue-in-cheek phrases like “Making buns look good for years” welcome visitors to an environment in which objectifying women is not just tolerated, it’s expected and encouraged. Researchers Moffitt and Szymanski were curious about what it must be like to be a “Hooters Girl.” What makes women choose to work in such an environment? What are these women’s experiences of sexual objectification, and how do they manage it day after day? To find out, the researchers decided to interview eleven women who worked at Hooters. Most of the women were White, in their early twenties. All had completed high school, seven were working on college degrees, and one of the women already had her bachelor’s. The researchers asked the women basic questions about why they chose to work at Hooters and what the experience has been like for them.

Their findings, though not totally surprising, are still a little disturbing. First of all, the number one reason women chose to work at Hooters was to earn more money. Since many women were either in college or raising children (or both), working at Hooters also allowed the women more schedule flexibility. Once employed, the women had to immediately adopt the Hooters look (based on a very narrow, White, heterosexual standard of beauty), which included endless physical requirements regarding hair, nails, makeup, teeth-brushing, deodorant, tattoos, jewelry and of course the requirement that the women maintain the weight at which they were hired. “Basically, you’re not allowed to get fat,” one woman recalled.

While on the job, the women reported feeling endlessly sexually objectified by male customers. “The guys are constantly watching you, no matter where you go,” one woman said, “If you’re doing nothing and just standing there, because that’s what you’re literally there for, they’re always watching you.” As if being “on display” when not carrying a tray wasn’t bad enough, many women reported more serious forms of sexualization that should probably be called sexual harassment or sexual violence. The women reported being grabbed, having unwanted pictures taken of their sexual body parts, being propositioned for sex, and even being followed or stalked outside of the restaurant.

As we might expect, a women who must put up with this humiliating behavior as a part of her job tends to feel less-than-stellar as a result. Several of the women interviewed talked about feeling depressed or sad, and it was not uncommon for the women to cry at work. “Sometimes I want to go to the bathroom and cry, because it makes you feel so disrespected,” said one woman, “like you’re absolutely nothing, and I don’t really think that’s fair.”

Far from being passive victims of a toxic SOE, however, the women described several strategies they used to resist the harmful effects of being constantly sexually objectified. For example, several of the women mentioned using humor to downplay the situation. “We just have to kind of joke around, laugh it off and, you know, just kind of put up with it actually,” explains one woman. Furthermore, the women talked about the importance of setting boundaries with customers by, for example, talking about boyfriends, husbands, or children. Finally, the women dealt with the SOE by psychologically separating their Hooters Girl persona from their “true” selves. As one woman bluntly put it, “I’m a really good bullshitter to be honest.”

As I read this study, I couldn’t help but relate to these women. I may never have worked at Hooters, but I’m no stranger to sexual objectification. Any woman who dares to pound the New York City pavement, for example, knows what it feels like to be ogled by those creepy men on the street. So what broke my heart about this study was the final section, entitled “Judgment.” Over and over again the women described being judged by others to be sexually loose and immoral – and not just by their customers. The women described negative judgments from close friends, family members, potential romantic partners, and the general public. In short, the women were judged not just by men, but also by other women.

So what’s the bottom line? Is working at Hooters “good” for women? Is it “bad” for women? Neither of these questions has a clear answer. After all, it may be “bad” for a woman to have to put up with sexual objectification as a part of her job, but at the same time it is certainly “good” for her to have enough time to take care of her disabled child and still pay the rent.

But what seemed to be missing from the women’s stories was the element of support for one another. Instead of banding together to take on a difficult environment together, the women told stories of competition, cattiness, distancing, and gossip. As one woman stated, “Girls are brutal there.”

Working in a sexually objectifying environment is hard enough. Now is the time for women to look at one another with respect and compassion, instead of jealousy, fear, and judgment. We all live in this male-dominated world together – one big SOE. And if you ask me, it is unthinkable to face it alone.


[1] Moffitt, L.B., Szymanski, D.M. (2011). Experiencing sexually objectifying environments: A qualitative study. The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1), 67-106.

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