The Sexualization of females often begins when they are babies. This sexualization can, and often does, have the lasting impacts of making girls and women feel a lot of shame around their bodies and fear of men. Sexualization is not the same as sexual abuse, where someone is forcing/coercing a child (or someone whose considerably younger and/or less powerful) into engaging in sexual acts. No, sexualization is the act of placing sexual “behaviors/responsibilities” onto another. This is often seen in comments from well meaning parents or caregivers who may comment that their daughter (whether it be a baby, toddler, a prepubescent child, or a teen) cannot wear some type of outfit because its “too sexy, fast, “ or some other word that we might use to describe an adult and yet it’s placed upon the child. Underlying this statement is that the female is responsible for what men/boys will say or do to her if they find her sexually desirable.
Why Women Struggle With Loving Their Bodies
Many adult women struggle with loving their bodies. In fact many women have so much shame and fear around their body that when engaging in intimate acts they actually become disconnected from their bodies. Others remain completely covered up, not because it’s how they prefer to dress, but out of fear that someone will sexually harass (or more) them. All because of early experiences in which they were sexualized. Where their bodies didn’t feel like their own.
Whats always striking to me is often times when I hear comments that sexualize little girls it’s from men who say “no my daughter can’t wear that”. When you ask them why, they will say something along the lines of, “I don’t want my daughter looking like that?” Looking like what is always my question. Or I hear, “your dad won’t like you wearing that”. It’s always so interesting to me that moms or other women don’t see a problem with the skirt, the two piece bathing suit, the tank top, etc but their partners (or typically another male) does, and thus their daughters cannot wear certain clothes.
You can even see this is some strict religious practices, where females (but also some males) need to be covered up, Parts of their body and/or their hair. Although I respect peoples choice of religious practice, the reality is that the goal of “modesty” is rooted in the same practice of sexualizing women.
Ways in Which We Sexualize Little Girls:
When we sexualize little girls we send them the message that they are sexual beings. Just think about that for one minute, not allowing your baby or toddler to wear a two piece swim suit because it’s too revealing. Someone might be aroused seeing your baby and act on said desire. Thats incredibly uncomfortable to even think about but imagine being that little girl who constantly hears comments like that. “Cover up!” “Thats too revealing!” “Thats inappropriate!” “What will ______ say about you dressed like this!” “You look fast!” “That’s too sexy!” “You look like a slut!” These words/statements and those that are similar are all too common for many of us women growing up, and it leads to a lot of discomfort and self loathing.
How Sexualizing Girls Creates Body Shame and Fear:
The environment we grow up in gives our developing brains a lot of information about the world and the people in it. When we grow up in environments in which we are surrounded by love and safety we grow up believing that the world is safe and people are good. Conversely if we grow up in environments with a lot of fear and violence, we see the world as a dangerous place. We always need to be on guard so we can protect ourselves.
Although the above might sound extreme for the purpose of this blog, the message is the same-what we say and do with our children shapes their beliefs about themselves and the world. When you tell a girl she can’t wear certain things or behave in certain ways because someone else might be aroused by them, you’re creating a fear around both the little girls body and of other people. So when puberty comes there is discomfort and confusion about what that will mean for this girl as she continues to get older. When men approach her and comment on her body in a sexual way she may feel anxiety and she may shut down (as her stress response system is activated).
3 Tips to Helping Girls Love Their Bodies and Decrease Shame
Just like it’s important to be intentional about creating a home environment that is (physically and emotionally) safe and loving, you want to be intentional about body positive messaging. Our bodies are amazing and beautiful in their own rights. There is so much that our bodies can do, so why not embrace that. In embracing that we can then be thoughtful about how to helping our children develop a positive view of their own bodies
So here are 3 tips that can guide you on your way:
1. Model body positivity. This means being intentional about how you talk about your own body. We all have ups and downs with our bodies but you don’t want to constantly talk negatively about your own body or anyone elses. This includes strangers. This means getting rid of dialogue that focuses on a persons weight, as one big example.
2. Set boundaries around others talking about your daughter’s body. This is probably the biggest thing I want you to take away, is that it’s not ok for others to comment on your daughters bodies, especially as she is entering puberty, when she all ready has so much discomfort around the changes that are occuring. We’ve all been through middle school, it was rough for us all, in different ways. Protect your daughter and her feelings. Ask your loved ones to refrain from commenting on your daughters body. Advocate for your daughter.
3. Find different ways to describe your daughters gifts that aren’t sexual. It’s ok to tell your child she’s sweet, previous, adorable, cute, beautiful, etc but stay away from hot or sexy.
Conclusion: Sexualization of children can often lead to an adult who is ashamed of their body. Often times the sexualization is rooted in fear of womens sexuality and/or fear of men sexually harassing or sexually assaulting women. One way to combat this to teach boys and men how to not sexualize women and to treat women with respect while also supporting girls and women how to feel safe, comfortable, and empowered in their body.