From the time girls are born, our culture sends subtle and not-so-subtle messages about their place in the world. Unfortunately, those messages are undeniably problematic. Girls should be seen and not heard. Girls should look pretty, and as defined by societal standards. Girls should cover up. Girls should do what they're told. Girls should be "ladies" (whatever that means). Girls should be emotionally, and not physically, strong. As a result of these messages, there are so many ways our daughters are objectified before they turn 5. And I'm hoping we can all agree that this has to stop.
So what is objectification anyway? At a basic level, objectification is treating someone like an object or thing. You know, not human. In our culture, the objectification of women and girls is largely sexual in nature: we're either a collection of body parts to be viewed and enjoyed, or we need to constantly cover up those body parts as not to distract men and boys. As The Atlantic reports, a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology actually showed that regardless of gender, people's brains have a tendency to unconsciously reduce female bodies to their sexual body parts. That, my friends, is objectification.
And the objectification of women is obvious the moment us parents reveal to others that we're having a girl. People joke about locking our daughters up or fawn over the frilly baby clothes we'll inevitably dress them in. Then, as they grow, we constantly tell girls to sit still and look pretty, as if their number one goal in life is to be both compliant and pleasing to look at. Every time we focus on looks over intelligence, we reinforce the message that girls exist to look pretty, mainly for cisgender straight men, and their appearance is their only source of worth. I shouldn't have to reiterate how messed up that is.
Why does this matter? Well, for one, it's bullsh*t to treat girls and women differently than boys and men. Also, over time, research shows that this objectification often becomes internalized and can have lasting results, leading to problems with body image, self-esteem, disordered eating, sexual disfunction, and even academic and athletic performance. What's more is that objectification changes how boys treat girls, too. Researchers at the University of Kent found that objectification of girls can lead to aggression and violent behavior toward them, which makes sense, because when you see a person as a thing to be owned or controlled, it’s easy to dehumanize and abuse them.
So what can we do? Well, the first step in any behavior change is being aware of the problem. So with that in mind, read on for some ways we all unconsciously objectify girls, and from the start of their lives.
When Even Preschools Have Sexist Dress Codes
I generally let my kids choose their own clothes, and as a result, have had to help them navigate some pretty sexist school dress codes. My daughter's preschool had different rules for girls and boys — no spaghetti straps and shorts under skirts and dresses. It was infuriating, and it made no sense. We are talking about children. Can we please stop sexualizing children and policing girls' bodies? Just stop.
When We Tell Girls To Sit Still & "Be A Lady"
I wish the phrase "be a lady" would die in a fire. What does it even mean? Does it mean quiet, modest, compliant, nicely dressed, and pleasing? If so, why do we prioritize these things as goals for girls, while at the same time expecting "boys to be boys," also known as rough, loud, energetic, and violent? What if telling girls to sit still or be lady-like means they don't take risks? What if hearing "throw like a girl" over and over again actually means that girls will, well, throw like we expect girls to throw? If you think this sounds far-fetched, you should know that researchers found that girls who experience self-objectification actually do worse at sports.
When We Joke About "Locking Them Up"
I, for one, am so done with jokes about protecting my daughter's virtue from future male suitors. It's not only heteronormative (because who's to say my daughter won't fall in love with another woman one day?), but it perpetuates the idea that my daughter's entire existence (and happiness) is for someone else to control.
When We Dress Them Up
We tend to treat little girls like dolls we can dress up. Then, we tell them how pretty they are every hour of every day, reinforcing the idea that their looks are, and should remain, the number one priority in their lives.
My husband pointed out the other day that our daughters spend way more time doing their hair, choosing clothes, putting on makeup, and looking in mirrors than our sons. Why is that? When do we learn about the importance of appearances? As someone who loves hair and makeup, I don't want to keep these things from them, but at the same time I want them to know they are so much more than pretty faces and bodies to look at.
University of Arizona's Department of Nutritional Sciences found that child beauty pageants are actually harmful to children's health and self-esteem, stating that they're actually more for the parents' benefit than the kids'. When we put an emphasis on physical perfection from an early age, young girls are at a higher risk of developing adult body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
When We Sexualize Them
I remember when my daughter was a toddler and liked to run around nude in our back yard or living room. Almost every damn time someone would say I needed to put a top on her. But no one says anything about my son doing the same thing. When we tell little girls to cover up, we are implying that there's something they should be ashamed about. The same goes for reporting pictures of little kids on Facebook for nudity. Or toddler beauty pageants. Or sexist dress codes. Little kids aren't sexual. We have got to stop sexualizing kids.
When We Joke About Arranged Marriage
People joke all of the time about their kids marrying their BFF's kids, but I don't think these jokes are funny at all. I don't get to decide who my children marry, someday, if they even decide to tie the knot. Just like the bullsh*t jokes about fathers having "rules for dating my daughter," these jokes assume ownership or decision making authority over our children's futures, when our kids are not property.
Besides, it may be hard to believe, but arranged marriages still happen today. Child marriage is legal, not just in other countries, but in many U.S. states, too. In 2017, some parents still choose who their kids marry. This is not OK with me and is often harmful to the mainly girls whose autonomy is taken away. I don't think it's a laughing matter.
When We Violate Their Bodily Autonomy
Bodily autonomy is the concept that your body belongs to you and no one else. Research shows that teaching your kids about bodily autonomy can demonstrate the importance of consent, can help build trust with your child, and can even help protect them from sexual violence.
Unfortunately, as parents, we violate bodily autonomy all of the time. Anytime you don't stop when your daughter doesn't want to be tickled, make your kids kiss grandma, make them sit on Santa's lap, or pierce your daughter's ears without her explicit permission, you take away their bodily autonomy.
When We Exclusively Compliment Their Looks
I often think about a quote from writer Erin McKean, "Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female.'" I have to admit that I have a hard time not complimenting my daughters' looks all of the time, because they are pretty. However, when we constantly tell our girls they are pretty, but don't tell them how smart, brave, capable, hard-working, or creative they are, we send the wrong message. The same goes for praising thin bodies, blonde hair, white skin, long legs, or big boobs in front of our kids. Women and girls are so much more than a set of body parts to be criticized or admired.
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