The SPARK Research Blog:  Real Talk about Really New Research on the Sexualization of Girls, is brought to you by the ASAP Initiative at Hunter/CUNY, one of the SPARK leadership team partners.  The goal of the bi-weekly SPARK Research Blog is to tell you about the latest research findings in clear and plain language, with a girl-centered perspective, jettisoning the often difficult jargon that plagues a lot of scientific writing.

Sexual Empowerment? Or Just a New Way to Sexualize Women?

Is it just me? Or have others noticed a strange, almost imperceptible shift in what counts as sexual empowerment?

For a long time, feminists have critiqued sexualized media images of women in part because of the way those glossy ads (and their sparkly cousins: movies, TV, video games, and the internet) portray women as powerless and passive – totally (and willingly) dominated by men. If the problem with advertisements is that women are consistently depicted as sexual objects whose sole purpose is to look hot for men, then the solution seems obvious: Portray women as powerful, not powerless. And that’s just what advertisers are now trying to do.

These days, there are more and more advertisements attempting to represent women as “liberated” and “in control.” Take, for example, this recent Dolce & Gabbana beachwear ad. The woman in the ad is standing strong and tall, while the man is on his knees. She seems to have some sort of power over him as she leans forward, and he tilts back.

But is this sexual empowerment? Yeah, right. She’s practically naked, arching her back and pushing her breasts into the face of the “submissive” man. Plus, I can count her ribs.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who has noticed that new advertisements showing supposedly “empowered” women, are just new versions of the same ol’ tricks. She might be standing while he kneels, but her impossibly thin and barely-clothed body is still a sexualized object for him to enjoy. Psychologists Emma Halliwell, Helen Malson, and Irmgard Tischner aren’t buying it either.

In a recent scientific study, Halliwell, Malson, and Tischner[1] wanted to see if when women look at supposedly “empowered” but still sexualized images of women, they then feel bad about themselves in the same way that they would if they looked at “passively” sexualized images. To find out, college women were shown various advertisements that had sexualized images of either “passive” or more “empowered” women. After the participants looked at the advertisements, they filled out questionnaires that measured how dissatisfied they were with their weight and how much they focused on and worried about the appearance of their own bodies; this is also known as self-objectification (for a description of the concept of self-objectification, take a look at my previous blog about music videos).

By now you’ve probably already guessed what Halliwell, Malson, and Tischner found. Both kinds of images, the “passive” and “empowering,” are damaging to women. Unsurprisingly, women who viewed both kinds of advertisements felt more dissatisfied with their bodies than women who viewed more neutral ads. In a surprise twist, though, the women who looked at the “empowered” sexualized images actually self-objectify more than women who looked at the “passive” sexualized images.

Say what?! That’s right, folks. Those sexy ads that seem to portray women as sexually empowered actually make girls think about their own bodies in more sexually objectifying ways than more passively sexualized ads do. The authors think this may be because ads that put women in positions of “power” while simultaneously sexually objectifying their bodies make women feel that they must take control not just of their relationships with men, but of the way their bodies look as well. Of course, the irony of all this, according to Helen Malson, is that these “empowering” images pressure women to conform to a very narrow and sexualized “beauty ideal,” while at the same time the women in the images are presented as if they chose to be looked at in this way. This aspect of choice is part of what makes the images seem “empowering,” but it’s also what makes them so damaging – Women think to themselves, If that’s what real empowerment looks like, then I better make sure I look like that too.

So where does that leave us? I think we can all agree that the idea of presenting more sexually empowered images of women in advertisements is a good one. The problem here is the execution – after all, Dolce & Gabbana’s ad certainly doesn’t make me feel great about my body, and it didn’t do much for the body satisfaction of participants in Halliwell, Malson, and Tischner’s study either. But perhaps we’re dealing with an even bigger problem. Maybe it isn’t just advertisers or even the media as a whole that think these images show us actual sexual empowerment. Maybe this is just the popular view in our society – that female sexual empowerment means wielding a sort of control, while still keeping those damaging core beliefs in place. Women still have to be super-skinny, barely dressed, and objects for men to look at.

“I think the take-home message is to be wary of seemingly empowering images of seemingly empowered women,” says Helen Malson, “Particularly if they’re suggesting becoming empowered through conforming to narrowly defined images of what men (allegedly) want.” These so-called “empowering” images of women turn out to be just the opposite. They’re a lie, a Venus flytrap. They lure us in with sweet promises of empowerment, and then SNAP! They gobble us up in the same old sexualized rhetoric.

Well I’m not falling for it. Real sexual empowerment isn’t about what you look like. It doesn’t require stick-thinness or exhibitionism. Real sexual empowerment is about how women feel in their bodies. It’s about knowing what you want (and don’t want) and not being afraid to let your partner know. It’s about sexual pleasure. It’s about having fun in your body and loving your body and really feeling your body. When the media can figure out how to show us this kind of healthy female sexuality, I’ll be glad to call it sexual empowerment too.

-by Christin Bowman

Our Research Blogger, Christin Bowman, is a twenthy-something doctoral student in social-personality psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY (CIty University of New York), who comes to ASAP from recent experience teaching sexuality education in an urban high school. You may remember Christin from the SPARK Summit–she was one of the young women asking questions for the Hear a Story, Tell a Story booth.

[1] Halliwell, E., Malson, H., Tischner, I. (2011). Are contemporary media images which seem to display women as sexually empowered actually harmful to women? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1) 38-45.