The difference between self-expression and self-objectification

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The difference between self-expression and self-objectification

Magazines, films, TV shows, adverts and music videos: society is saturated with sexualized images of women, often sending girls mixed messages about how to represent themselves. Although you can’t control the media, you can encourage appropriate self-expression in your daughter.

As your girl explores and develops her identity, it’s natural for her to want to look to popular and successful women for role models. But today, it’s increasingly common to see her favorite celebrities presented in sexualized ways, often blurring the line between female empowerment and self-objectification. With the wildly popular teen idol Miley Cyrus singing nude in her controversial Wrecking Ball video and superstar singer Beyoncé being featured on the cover of Time magazine in her underwear, it’s understandable that our girls may equate success with sexuality, an assumption that can have a negative impact on your daughter’s development. And recent research confirms that self-objectification can lead to issues such as body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem and decreased academic performance.

Crucial to supporting your daughter is educating her as a self-publisher. Using different photos of your girl, ask her a few of the following questions to open up a conversation about appropriate self-expression:

What would Grandma (or another favorite relative) think if she saw this picture?

Getting your daughter to put herself in the shoes of people she loves and respects could give her a different perspective she hadn’t considered when she posed for the photo. This isn’t about making judgments but rather getting her to consider whether she is presenting an accurate representation of who she really is.

Does the photo reflect who you are and your interests?

This question is about encouraging authenticity. It’s natural for your daughter to begin exploring her developing sexuality, but you can help her see that the many other aspects of her personality are valuable and deserve to be reflected in how she puts herself out in the world.

Would your classmates and extended family recognize you?

If she responds that others might not recognize her in the photo, explore the pros and cons of acting versus being authentic.

What would you think of a close friend if she posted a similar photo online?

Researcher Dr Elizabeth Daniels of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of UC Santa Cruz found that when girls upload sexualized photos of themselves to Facebook, other girls tend to view them in a negative light. Zurbriggen told the Los Angeles Times: “Numerous studies have shown that when women are depicted in sexualized ways (revealing clothing, provocative poses), they are perceived as less intelligent, competent and capable. But this is one of the first studies to show that not only do other women and girls perceive the women in non-sexualized photographs as more competent, they're also seen as prettier and more desirable as a friend. Discuss how your daughter’s own self-expression could positively or negatively impact her friends’ opinions of her.

What kinds of assumptions might people you don’t know make based on the photo?

Remind your daughter that once photos are online they can never be completely deleted. Talk about the possibility of future teachers or employers seeing her current photos, and what conclusions – positive or negative – they might make.

Author: Sharon Haywood , health/body image activist and writer

Action checklist:
The relationship between self-objectification and sport

Investigators have shown that self-objectification can contribute to a variety of negative outcomes for girls and women, including poorer motor performance. Exercise is essential, not only for your daughter’s physical health but also her emotional well-being. If your girl believes in her physical abilities, she may also feel more body confident.

Research has shown that physical activity can help counteract women’s negative feelings about their body that come with exposure to idealized images of beauty. Additionally, the motivation for exercise plays an important role. Women who self-objectify tend to exercise to achieve appearance-related results, and experience greater body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem. At the other end of the spectrum, women who don’t self-objectify are inclined to engage in physical activity to stay fit, and are happier with their bodies (Strelan, Mehaffey and Tiggemann, 2003).

Helping your daughter establish healthy fitness habits early sets her on a path of body satisfaction that can last into adulthood. From hockey to basketball, encourage your daughter to experiment with different sports and activities, remembering to keep the focus on the enjoyment and health benefits they can bring her.

What next: action steps to promote self-expression over self-objectification

  • Talk about current fashion trends with your daughter. A lot of clothing aimed at young girls is sexualized, so you want to encourage her to think critically about the messages clothing can send. Avoid passing judgment on her choices and keep the conversation objective. 
  • Seek out positive female role models based on your daughter’s interests that you can explore in more detail together. Some present-day examples include 17-year-old singer-songwriter Lorde, successful teen fashion writer and magazine editor Tavi Gevinson and Amy Poehler, comedian, actress and founder of Smart Girls at the Party. 
  • Using current events, nurture her critical-thinking skills by discussing the differences in how male and female athletes are portrayed on TV, in magazines and online. This way, you can gradually open up a discussion about the sexual objectification of women in the media.
  • While watching TV together, take advantage of the media you’re consuming to talk about the messages it’s sending. Nurture her media literacy skills by asking your daughter who she thinks the message is intended for and what the creator wants the viewer to believe or think.
  • Encourage her to create her own media – anything from a Facebook page to a blog – that presents females in non-sexualized light and celebrates their strength and accomplishments.
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