Pageants, Dance, Cheerleading, and Sexual Objectification: It’s Nothing to Cheer About.
If you are female or care about anyone who is, here are a few fun facts we all need to know now:
- Sexual objectification takes place when girls and women are viewed primarily as objects to be used and looked at.
- Environments where women are required, often by a uniform, to reveal and emphasize their bodies are sexually objectifying.
- Sexually objectifying environments and activities often result in the participants experiencing high levels of self-objectification.
- Self-objectification happens when females evaluate and control their bodies more in terms of their sexual desirability to others than in terms of their own desires, health, or competence. They live to be looked at.
- Self-objectification is REALLY bad. It stunts female progress and happiness in every way. It leads to disordered eating, diminished mental and athletic performance, anxiety, depression, body hatred, etc., and these negative consequences occur among girls and women of all ethnicities.*
So what does all this have to do with the title of the post?! Well here’s the thing.
Sexual objectification appears normal and natural when we believe our looks and sex appeal are the best/only thing we can bring to the table. Beauty Redefined is all about fighting for girls and women everywhere to recognize we are capable of much more than looking hot in a profit-driven world begging us to believe our bodies are all we’ve got to offer. So it’s time we called out a couple very normal parts of our culture that might be holding us back from real power, health, and happiness, and keeping us battling epidemic levels of self-objectification. Let’s talk about sexually objectifying activities that often include beauty pageants, cheerleading, and competitive dance teams. Moms sign daughters up for these activities and participants opt into these them for fun, empowerment, and to show off their awesome skills. But research confirms the sexually objectifying nature of some of these activities is not empowering and triggers the negative consequences of self-objectification in too many participants.
Before you get mad at bR for dissing your activity of choice, please know this:
We aren’t here to shame or blame anyone for what they participate in. We are trying to shed light on activities in which many girls and women take part that may be sexually objectifying, triggering of self-objectification, and thus, harmful to the health and well being of those participants. We’re fighting FOR your happiness – not against it!
Your pageant, cheerleading or dance team might not be sexually objectifying. You can decide whether it is or not by answering three simple questions:
Is the sport or activity pretty much a ladies-only deal with spectators of either gender? If girls and women are the vast majority of participants and/or you can’t imagine men doing the same thing, your answer is “yes.” If so, simply move on to the next question. If you answer “no,” try the next question just to make sure.
Does the sport or activity require female participants to wear uniforms that reveal and emphasize their bodies because the way their bodies look is the main focus? If your answer is “no,” you’re good to go! This activity is not, at surface level, sexually objectifying. If your answer is “it depends on what you mean by ‘revealing and emphasizing,’” or “yes,” proceed to the next question.
If male participants are/were allowed, would their uniforms require the same amount of revealing attire that emphasizes the body?
For cheerleading teams, if you’ve got a co-ed team but the guys are wearing baggy pants and shirts while the girls are wearing bra tops, skirts, and a whole lot of bloomers, it might be sexually objectifying. It’s OK to come back with the argument “We need to have a lot of give in our uniforms when doing high kicks and splits!” But it doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of things to wear to do kicks and splits and guys would never be required to wear that to do the same job. Karate, MMA, and kickboxing participants kick a lot and they get pants!!
For beauty pageants, that answer is usually pretty clear. If the pageant requires a “fitness” competition that demands you strut your stuff in heels and a bikini or one-piece suit, men would never, ever be required to do that with a straight face. Even just wearing those painful heels alone is a crazy thing to ask of them. As Elizabeth Plank put it, “Why is that in 2013, the largest benefactor of scholarships to women judges its recipients based on how hot they look in a bikini? It would be ludicrous to televise men strutting their stuff on stage in speedos for college money, right?”
For competitive dance teams, again, the answer is pretty evident. If guys are on your team or were allowed to join, are they/would they be required to wear a uniform that resembles yours? If you laugh at the thought, it just might be a sexually objectifying activity.
So if there’s a chance the sport or activity you have in mind might be sexually objectifying, the rest of this information will be super helpful to you. It turns out that our research and that of other awesome scholars reveal that situations that accentuate women’s bodies and encourage them to be viewed by spectators like beauty pageants, cheerleading, ballet, and competitive dance often lead to high levels of self-objectification and distorted body image.** While physical activity and sports in general actually HELP us break FREE from that constant preoccupation with our looks, the sad truth is that too often, aesthetically-focused activities like the ones we’re highlighting today can sometimes do a real disservice to their participants. This may not have been the case in your life or the lives of those you know, but in too many cases, self-objectification is the coping mechanism and outcome of pageants, cheerleading, and dance teams. We share this information so that we can all begin critically reflecting on the messages these activities might be sending about the value of girls and women, the harmful effects of participation in these activities for some females, and how we can limit their negative consequences.
One obvious reason these very female-centered activities are sexually objectifying and lead to self-objectification is because tight or revealing clothing is required for participation, often in front of spectators. Prichard and Tiggemann (2005) found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants). Strelan and colleagues (2003) found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers (ads, mirrors surrounding them in gym classes, etc.) leads women to self-objectify more. Fredrickson and colleagues (1998) had women try on a swimsuit or a sweater in front of a mirror – alone – and then complete various tests. Swimsuit-wearing women expressed more body shame and performed worse on a math test than did sweater-wearing women. As a follow-up, Fredrickson and Harrison (2005) explored these effects on athletic performance, and found that girls with higher levels of self-objectification performed worse than did those with lower levels, regardless of their actual athletic experience.
No wonder the uniforms required for participation in these events lead to self-objectification and actually HURT our performance! It is 2014 and we are still asking girls and women to wear bikinis and heels in front of judges and an audience to determine their “fitness” levels, which we should all know could NEVER be measured by looking at someone. Ever. We are still requiring that basically the ONLY way will see a woman participate in a college football, basketball, or professional football or basketball game is by wearing knee-high boots, a sparkly bra top, and a little skirt to jump and kick for entertainment when the men – the stars of the show – are using their bodies as something waaaaay more than objects to be looked at. We even require female volleyball players to wear tiny spandex bottoms for no purpose while men get full length, baggy shorts. (We won’t even start on beach volleyball!) What message does that send to little girls in the audience about what it means to be female?
One participant in Lexie’s dissertation research spent years in scholarship pageants: “From ages 17-20, I competed in scholarship pageants. The neat part was that I did win a few and received money for college. The pitfall was that self-objectification became my life. I constantly compared myself to women in media and the pageant. The comparisons became very harmful. I was so paranoid to eat even a piece of candy for fear that my swimsuit competition would be threatened. I didn’t feel well, I wasn’t happy, I didn’t have a normal menstrual period for months, and I constantly told myself ‘I’m not enough.’ I wasn’t diagnosed as anorexic, but it’s scary to realize I was on that track…Even though I did pageants, I would be hesitant to let my own daughter do them unless things change.”
In Lindsay’s dissertation research, study participants overwhelmingly reported physical activities as a way out of body shame. When they talked about physical activity, it was extremely positive and empowering. However, more aesthetically focused activities like cheerleading and dance were associated with negative feelings among participants. The women tended to connect memories of involvement in those activities with instances of body shame and a heightened awareness of body ideals. One brave woman shared her story as follows:
“I grew up dancing and cheerleading. These are two sports where your body image gets seriously distorted. I lost a lot of weight in high school.. I did it mostly in a healthy way but was obsessed with exercising. I would run a few miles before going to dance practice for three hours and then run home. I remember when I started at a new cheerleading club in 8th grade and my mom told me that we should make some changes if I wanted to look like the other girls … I’ve always been very aware of my own body and other people’s bodies… I would say I probably think about it more than average. I don’t know if this is because of media, being in dance and cheer when I was young, or what. I’m just very aware.”
So what do we do?! What if you LOVE dancing or your daughter wants to compete in pageants or you are planning on trying out for a local cheer squad? Here are five options that can help you break free from the halting place of self-objectification and major self-consciousness:
Whatever it is you are doing, please remember your reflection does not define your worth, you are capable of much more than looking hot, and you deserve to love and care for yourself. Girls and women who feel OK about their bodies — meaning they aren’t “disgusted” with them like more than half of women today – take better care of themselves. With self-objectification and body shame at epidemic levels, this point is crucial! (van den Berg & Neumark-Sztainer, 2007). We know that encouraging women to love and care for their bodies – whether or not they match media beauty ideals — is one way to help women regain their power in a world that needs them.
- Choose an activity and/or team with a focus on how your body WORKS instead of just how it LOOKS. Research and real-life experience make clear that sports like soccer, basketball, softball, competitive swimming, and track and field are excellent ways to experience our bodies as instruments instead of just objects. If you are prone to self-objectification or all around self-consciousness about your body, these types of physical activities will help you break free from that bodily prison so you can actually experience life instead of monitor what you look like at all times.
- Many companies or schools of dance require their students to participate in mandatory weigh-ins. Ugh. As you can imagine, researchers find this practice creates problems that may contribute to eating disorders and body hatred (i.e., Hamilton, 2002). If you are a coach, please consider removing this harmful and degrading practice from your requirements. If you are a dancer who is subjected to these rules, send your coach this post and ask them to consider their influence on the health and well being of their dancers.
- If the pageant you are interested in requires participants to strut in a swimsuit so they can be judged on their “fitness,” consider opting out. This type of judgment leads to the opposite of fitness – instead, girls and women starve for months in preparation, they over-exercise to an unhealthy degree, and obsess over the look of their bodies. There are other ways to earn scholarship money, and if you aren’t self-objectifying to such a large degree, you’ll score higher on academic tests, perform better in sports, and feel happier.
- The smaller and tighter the uniforms, the more likely you are to get caught up in self-objectification that can negatively affect your performance, your mood, and your health choices. If you are in charge of choosing uniforms, consider the positive effects of something a bit less revealing and emphasizing of your body. Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) suggest that wearing baggy clothing may be a strategy used by women to avoid self-objectification because it allows them to focus on what their bodies can DO instead of just what they look like doing it – ESPECIALLY if you practice in front of a mirror. Self-objectification is the worst. Do whatever it takes to avoid it.
Girls, we love you. It’s time to reject the sexually objectifying situations that appear so normal to us and break free of the self-objectification that kills our happiness, sense of worth, and performance in all sorts of areas. You are capable of much more than looking hot! Go live that truth. It’ll change everything. Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.
*Calogero et. al, 2010; Fredrickson, Noll, Roberts, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2005; Fredrickson et. al, 2008; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Impett, Schooler, and Tolman, 2006; Simmons, Rosenberg, & Rosenberg, 1973; Steinberg, 1999; Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001; Quinn, Kallen, Twenge, & Fredrickson, 2006.
** Dotti et al., 2002; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Pierce and Daleng, 1998; Syzmansky, Moffit, & Carr, 2011; Tiggemann & Slater, 2001