In a small Wisconsin high school, two boys printed and distributed nude cell phone photos of a former girlfriend that she had taken and emailed to them in the past. I'm imagining the feelings of anger, shock and betrayal this must have created.
This story surfaced in the StarTribune last week, on the heels of the controversy about Annie Leibovitz's photos of Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair. I'm disturbed that Miley's parents allowed such a private-feeling photo of their daughter to be published in a major magazine--it feels like commercial exploitation of a 15 year old, pure and simple.
Over the weekend my thinking on all this was expanded when I read, in the spring issue of Ms., an excellent piece by Caroline Heldman on the high costs of the self-objectification that girls are taught by our culture.
From Heldman's piece:
A steady diet of exploitative, sexually provocative depictions of women feeds a poisonous trend in women's and girls' perceptions of their bodies, one that has recently been recognized by social scientists as self-objectification--viewing one's body as a sex object to be consumed by the male gaze. Like W.e.b. DuBois' famous description of the experience of black Americans, self-objectification is a state of "double consciousness...a sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."
Bingo - now I have the term to describe even better what was bothering me about the Cyrus photos. And it's the same thing that upsets me in the Wisconsin incident. Girls are being taught (as they have been for centuries) that they are sex objects. Sexual objectification turns a girl into a thing and diminishes her sense of value as a human being. When a girl self-objectifies she turns herself into a thing and diminishes her own value to herself.
In a very real way, girls and women who self-objectify are hurting ourselves. I well remember the deep despair I felt about my body (and by extension my entire self) whenever I was assaulted by unwanted sexual comments in public. I felt dehumanized, belittled and ashamed--like I had done something wrong. At the time, I didn't realize that I also hurt myself, by "buying into" the objectification and viewing myself exclusively through the eyes of others.
That was painful and harmful enough. And now the technological trappings of daily life like cell phones, digital cameras, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook are facilitating the viral spread, and multiplying the harm, of self-objectification.
When self-objectified images of girls (like nude photos taken by a girl on her own cell phone) are widely distributed, I think girls are harmed even more than they are by sexual objectification that takes place in real world, one-on-one situations. The powerlessness created by others broadcasting her image can be crushing. That total loss of control over her own body (through the image of it) is a graphic example of how sexual objectification can steal a girl's self confidence.
From Heldman's piece: Numerous studies have shown that girls and women who self-objectify are more prone to depression and low self-esteem and have less faith in their own capabilities, which can lead to diminished success in life.
So what can we do as parents to help our daughters resist the pressures to self-objectify? I'll write on that in the next few days.
Please send me your thoughts, too, by commenting.