Beauty Redefined Blog

Pageants, Dance, Cheerleading, and Sexual Objectification: It’s Nothing to Cheer About.

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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.

Miss World Greece 2012

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:

  • Click on this pic to see all our uplifting merchandise, including these sticky notes!

    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

 

  1. Danielle
    Danielle09-17-2013

    Love this. It makes me think pretty carefully about how I present myself as a roller derby athlete. I haven’t stepped on a scale (outside the doctor’s office) in months. The numbers I care about all reflect what my body can do: how many laps in 5 minutes, how many points on a scoring pass, how long I can hold a squat. But then I recognize that a lot of derby fans come for the booty shorts and fishnets…

    Kudos, the sisters Kite. I always enjoy the food for thought.

    • Seripanther
      Seripanther09-17-2013

      Danielle, who cares about why They come? The important thing is to know why You come. It sounds like you have a great experience going as a roller derby athlete, and that it’s made you strong and proud of yourself. And that’s awesome. Any derby fans who come solely to objectify you just embarrass themselves.

  2. Sarah
    Sarah09-17-2013

    Curious as to what your take is on dance and other related performing arts (gymnastics and acrobatics for example) which are by nature visual entertainment. These arts can be enjoyed by the performers for it’s physical aspects, but also by the audience as a visual spectacle. Where do we draw the line between enjoying dance and other visual performing arts for their visual aspects, and objectifying the performers or their performance? As an artist, (photographer, painter etc), I have great appreciation for visual culture and entertainment, though I have no background in the performing arts other than as a violinist in high school.
    When I watched a ballet performance on public television last holiday season, I didn’t watch the ballerinas and wish I was as thin as them. I may have appreciated their beautiful outfits and wished I could leap as high as them. But it didn’t make me feel bad, in fact, my toddler girl and I joined in, spinning and leaping with the music with pretty much zero coordination, but lots of laughs and smiles!
    I just feel there is a place for enjoying visual performances such as dance, without turning it into a demeaning thing. And at the same time I realize, along with self expression and entertainment, dance has a history throughout time and cultures as being part of courtship rituals and the art of male/female attraction. There are even members of the animal kindgom that “dance” to attract mates. Perhaps like a lot of things wrong in this world, we need to come back to the concept of balance. I would like to think visual attraction and expression can be an aspect of human nature, without it being one’s sole obsession?

    • Becky
      Becky09-17-2013

      Sarah I responded my opinion below. Granted we each have our own. I think balance is best, but feel like we are far from that key balance right now. Also this article is meant to draw attention to all of those that are bring negatively affected so we can be aware and keep an eye out in our own lives and those around us. If members of our society are wasting their lives trying to reach some unhealthy goal, or feeling like they can’t truly live because of it, or taking their life through suicide or health consequences then at least for those individuals, that balance must be off. Right?

    • Melinda
      Melinda09-18-2013

      I just wanted to make a quick comment. I don’t mean this to sound rude, but I feel that as human beings we try a little too hard to relate to the animal kingdom. I feel that because of our intelligence and ability to communicate, as well as making the choices we do, comparing ourselves and our behavior to animals really lowers that claim to intelligence.

      Animals do a lot of things a civilized society would hopefully not do. I know that these things do happen, but they aren’t the norm. For example: killing a mate after mating, eating their young, rejecting a weak baby, fighting over a mate and killing that mate in the process. Norms in the animal kingdom, but not norms in my world.

      Just food for thought.

  3. Gerry Dorrian
    Gerry Dorrian09-17-2013

    Again thank you for this, your 3-point checklist is brilliant and contains stuff we blokes just don’t think about often enough.

  4. Becky
    Becky09-17-2013

    Sarah, I think the point is dance and performing arts are fine and great to be visually entertaining. Where the concern comes in is when the performer has to worry more about her body’s appearance and imperfections more than the actual art or activity. Many “girls” activities are solely to get attention for how cute or beautiful or sexy they are. Sure maybe some attraction is fine and normal but we are pushing so many girls and women to have that be ALL they strive for in life.
    Some cheerleaders do pretty well at having it be the sport and yet others get out there and make themselves total sex objects by their moves and music and uniforms.
    Gymnastics is great and wonderful and it is an art and sport to be judge on appearance…but that judgement shouldn’t be on how thick a girl’s thighs are. And really the uniforms don’t need to be that skimpy, the men do great without their buttcheeks hanging out of their uniforms. It is harder to focus on the performance when the outfit pulls attention to the body vs the skill.
    Yes mating dances exist and they help the animals focus on the key survival strengths of their mate. However, our spouse choices might not help survival any better with a size dd cup or a thigh gap (not to mention the unhealthy disorders to get there) or how well you can twerk. I would much rather have a potential mate focus more on how they can survive with me on a daily basis, on my intelligence, on my personality, on my talents, on my health.

  5. Candice
    Candice09-30-2013

    As a dancer this topic resonates with me a lot.
    I grew up being the “big” dancer in class. I am by no means what the average person would consider big and for the most part I never considered myself big. I was a good dancer and I was usually praised on my ability but when I entered into my college dance program as a modern dance education major it became very clear that ability didn’t matter and that my body size was a problem. It was something that I began to think about every day, every meal, every moment really. I was always told to “show more wrinkles” in my shirt or leotard because that meant I looked more presentable. And it wasn’t ever a private discussion, it was a discussion that happened in front of my 40+ person class. Don’t get me wrong, dancing is my passion and I am so grateful that I was born with the talent but staring into a mirror for hours upon hours every day really starts to make you hate yourself.
    When I graduated high school I was offered a job teaching at a studio and also coaching cheer at a high school. While it was so much fun I was still comparing myself (to girls who were at least 5-6 years younger than me!) and I even started to compare the girls to each other. It felt so normal, so OK for me to tell a girl that if she lost 10 pounds that her legs would be able to kick higher or to talk with the other teachers about the girls and how we could encourage weight loss in them. It makes me sick even writing this and thinking that I lived my life and told others to live their lives in a very unhealthy way.
    I ended up leaving my dance program and quitting both of those jobs. It was my only solution to regain my sanity. I still dance and love the art form but now I join teams that have a large array of body types and I try to encourage the girls on my team to just be healthy.
    I will be graduating with a different degree but still plan to teach in high schools and hopefully return to dance/cheer teams as a coach, this time with the plan to help the girls feel good about themselves and their talents because what matters in our young performers is that they have fun, learn to work as a team, learn to dedicate themselves to something and realize that this body is an incredible gift and hurting it is the last thing we should ever do. Positivity will be the only way of coaching for me in the future.

  6. Dlodrake
    Dlodrake10-07-2013

    I’m very grateful for this article and to the women who have shared their experiences in these activities. I agree that sometimes our focus is on the body rather than the skill it takes to dance or cheerlead, etc. As a woman who participated in pageants for years through the Miss America organization and from talking to judges from the Miss Utah organization, I’ve learned some things that have comforted me and are the reason I continued. I never wanted to feel objectified or like a piece of meat, strutting in heels for a plastic crown. I didn’t participate solely for people to stare at me and sum me up solely on my looks.(I participated to promote my platform.) I was comforted in the fact that in the “swimsuit” competition, it was not solely to look at your body (at least for the judges, from what they told me.) The competition was mainly to see if you were comfortable the way you were and how you looked. I’m not saying that it’s the most comfortable thing and that we aren’t objectified in doing it. There are the people in the audience who watch who are not judges, and are solely looking at our body. I never wanted to wear a bikini so I wore a whole piece and refused to enhance areas of my body to make them look “more appealing” because I was comfortable with the way I was. And I still am after competing. I was very lucky to be constantly surrounded by women who encouraged and loved me – for being ME. Rather than tearing me down, my experience with pageants raised me up. I’m saddened, however, that this is not the norm. Honestly the swimsuit part of the competition is menial compared to the rest of the areas of competition, I feel it would be best to do away with it completely. I would be ESTATIC if we could have a “pageant” even more so focused on intelligence, charisma and talent, and less emphasis on the way girls look. I hope I don’t offend anyone with this comment, I just wanted to share my positive experience within the pageant world. Great article!

  7. Carmen Berliner
    Carmen Berliner01-30-2014

    I am sad to see these things come under such fire. I have competed and continue to compete in pageants, and I feel this paints a false picture of what the pageantry culture is like. It’s not all about looks, and swimsuits and objectification of the female body. Pageantry is so much more. What I feel is lacking in the portrayal of pageants from the media is how hard women actually work in preparing for them. Swimsuit competition is not about being the skinniest one on stage, it’s about a women’s dedication to a HEALTHY lifestyle. It is unfair to criticize women who work hard to be fit. There is a point however where both being too skinny and being to heavy have serious health hazards, that I can agree on. In addition both evening gown and swimsuit portions of pageants are less about how you look and more about the poise and confidence an individual portrays. More over, swimsuit and evening gown are weighted less than interview. If anything pageantry is a celebration of women, their confidence, poise, personality, and passion for a cause more often a platform. I am not trying to upset anybody with this comment, I have just had a much different experience with pageants, from competing not simply looking objectively at them and evaluating contestants at face value.

  8. Clary
    Clary05-05-2014

    Sigh, I knew if I opened this article and saw the mention of ballet I would be upset… I was a serious student of ballet for most of my life, with a plan to become a professional ballet dancer. I just need to say, ballet is NOT sexual objectification. EVER. Men usually DO wear leotards and tights just like the women; the purpose is so that the instructor can see your muscles, to make sure you have correct body alignment (otherwise you risk injury). And while ballet can definitely screw with your self-perception and body image (the reason I am not currently a professional ballet dancer is because I suffered severe anorexia and a terrible rebound of binge-eating disorder in my late-teens), it is by no means because serious ballet dancers are trying to be “sexy.” A ballet dancer’s body is a finely-tuned instrument, and it’s primary purpose is yes, a piece of visual art, but also an amazing body capable of unbelievable things, and I think all dancers recognize that. Sex appeal is never a factor.
    But I’m just talking about ballet, everything written here is definitely a problem in competitive dance…. *shudder*

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined05-05-2014

      Hi Clary! I had to quickly respond because I saw this comment and was confused by it. I wrote this post and definitely don’t believe ballet is sexually objectifying. I only mentioned ballet once, and it was in this regard: “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.” So no, we don’t say ballet is sexually objectifying and it seems like this description perfectly correlates with your personal experience of negative self-perception and an eating disorder (so sorry you had to experience that). I hope I cleared that up! Thanks for commenting!

  9. Catherine
    Catherine11-25-2014

    Personally, I think cheerleading is the definition of objectification. Along with school dress codes, but I’ll save that argument/opinion for another day. Cheerleaders don’t serve a purpose except entertaining the players (I’m talking a situation in a football game) their purpose is just really to give them a boost of testosterone which supposedly makes them play better. It’s especially saddening because in American culture, it’s almost the stereotype for pretty girls to become cheerleaders (at least it was when I was in high school) and the outfits are so flashy and tight, it’s no wonder the poor girls don’t have a routine. Schools are objectifying girls at such a young age.

  10. April
    April12-24-2014

    I love, love, love this article. My issue: my aptitudes are in the performing arts. I like a creative aspect to my workout. Sports aren’t really my thing. I LOVE dancing. However, there is a certain creepy, body competitive vibe in a lot of dance classes. Is there a creative activity that you recommend that involves rhythm and creative movement that is not focused on appearance? Help me brainstorm, please!

  11. kirsten
    kirsten01-29-2015

    These activities are even worse for those of us who are not considered attractive enough, for whatever reason, to compete. Mostly I hear how good cheerleading is for your self esteem. Of course, it is evidence you are more valued than your peers! And when I was in school, the cheerleaders were pretty mean or dismissive to unpopular people. It ruined team sports for me until recently, I finally recovered.

  12. JulieLS
    JulieLS07-28-2015

    i love that you are not turning away but finding a way to make it positive. i am searchign for the same opportunity as we are about to start our school’s first ever cheerleading squad! I would love to hear more about your ideas for this!

  13. Ramona Martin
    Ramona Martin11-06-2015

    i love that you are not turning away to make it positive. I am searching for the same opportunity as we are about to start our school’s first ever cheerleading squad! i would love to hear more about your ideas for this.

  14. Mike
    Mike03-12-2016

    I think it was Nietzche who said that “men ought to be warriors and women ought to be recreation for the warriors.” I think of this every time I see my girls in a cheerleading uniform and it makes me sick.

  15. talfonso
    talfonso05-11-2016

    I saw the news about the University of Washington’s cheerleading poster and I reread this (I read it before) article. No need to point out how it objectifies women because I know that already!

    Oh, and BMI limits for majorettes in a few universities (Troy, in particular) – can we discuss this? No? Good.

  16. Danny
    Danny07-29-2016

    The reason articles like this are a problem is because they basically say lets get rid of standards so people can have a safe space for their feelings. Just because someone is ok with their body doesn’t make them healthy. Sometimes they’re delusional and it’s gross. Their doctor isn’t being mean when that’s the case. All these studies prove is that people are too in their head, overthinking rather than just setting goals and reaching them.

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