Girls Are Watching


Self-Expression or Sexualization?

Knowing that girls are watching, women are working to draw the line between the freedom of sexual expression and the exploitation of it.

Between the perennially half-naked Miley Cyrus and celebrities whose only claim to fame is sex appeal, impressionable young women are being taught that sexualizing themselves is the key to empowerment.  

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“We’re all seeing the same exact thing over and over again, so it’s kind of hard to avoid not replicating that,” said 16-year-old actress Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart during a panel at the Women in the World summit on the impact our sex-saturated culture is having on young women. “Of course they’re going to try to create what they’re seeing because that is what gets attention.”

Hypersexuality in the media and pop culture is a growing concern among women of all ages, as Bonjean-Alpart articulated during Saturday’s panel, which was moderated byMorning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski.

But it was actress and writer Rashida Jones, whose feature in Glamour on “the pornification of everything” inspired the panel.

“I don’t blame anyone individually for expressing themselves. I’m just worried about the collective message,” Jones said of the sexualized images perpetuated by young female pop stars and emulated by young women and girls as young as seven. “It feels like the headline. And I know there’s more to those performers than that.”

Tomi-Ann Roberts, Professor of Psychology at Colorado College, stressed the importance of educating younger women (“our daughters”) that our culture is selling them a misleading “bill of goods” by equating twerking and teeth-licking with power. “Because guess what: you still have to get a good grade on your math test.”

Roberts cited a study by the American Psychology Association which found that girls as young as seven are spending significant cognitive energy trying to internalize and then emulate the sexpot standards set by the likes of Miley Cyrus. And expending energy on that takes a toll on other learning processes. “The girls who self-sexualize are more likely to throw a ball poorly,” said Roberts.

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So where do we draw the line between the freedom of sexual expression and the exploitation of it? Between empowerment and objectification?

“I think a huge part of it is media literacy,” said Jones. “Young girls don’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s entertainment. If you feel like you’re bullied into having to be sexy, then talk about it. A friend of my mom said to me when I was very young that you can’t invest solely in your looks. It’s like putting money into a stock that is going down,” she joked. “Invest in your talents. I want variety.”

Contribute to the conversation on social media under the hashtag #girlsarewatching.