Beauty Redefined Blog

Sex Sells, But We’re Buying More Than We Bargained For



“To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.” – Naomi Wolf  

magazinesIn a world where advertising-fueled media is inescapable, where the pornography industry has infiltrated all aspects of pop culture, and sexualized female bodies sell everything from children’s toys to deodorant, it’s easy to feel like sex appeal is all women can/should offer. The truth is, this rampant sexual objectification inspires shame, anxiety, and lost potential at every turn for girls and women. But here’s something we know for sure, and it’s a message we shout from the rooftops and have proved with our PhD research: There is more to be than eye candy. And when we figure out who we are outside the confines of just being looked at, we can do so much in this world. 

Media shouts what we should believe about ourselves at every turn. Most often, those voices tell us females of all ages are to be valued for our sexual appeal, we should spend their lives striving for these ideals, and we won’t loved and desired without reaching these goals (which are designed to be unattainable, for profit). Media’s lies to women are powerful, especially when we live in a country that is simultaneously the No. 1 global exporter of pop culture and the only industrialized nation that doesn’t teach media literacy in public school curriculum. While we teach our kids how to read classic literature, we have yet to help them understand and deconstruct media messages that shape their entire lives. We believe females everywhere must learn there is more to BE than eye candy – a message they won’t get from advertising-fueled mass media. Happiness comes in being, living, doing – not self-consciously strolling through life as an object to be looked at. And when you begin to realize that, you can start realizing the power of your abilities and the good you can do in a world so desperately in need of you. NOT a vision of you, but ALL of you.

Here’s our plan of attack: After a brief introduction to the sexualized landscape so common in pop culture today (from G-rated movies to XXX websites), we’ll break down the physical and emotional effects these types of now “normal” messages have on people, especially females. Next, we’ll arm you with strategies to reject those harmful messages and redefine what female worth, beauty, and power can and should mean.

Pornography Redefined
With sexualized female bodies dotting our media landscape, consider pretty much any movie in theaters in 2013, ads by Carls Jr., GoDaddy!, and Kia, music videos by the likes of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, Victoria’s Secret’s inescapable advertising in mailboxes, storefront windows, and TV, increasingly sexified Disney’s fairy princesses, the good ol’ SI Swimsuit Issue, Carl’s Jr.’s insanely sexist commercials, the list goes on and on and on. Scholars and media experts agree that the line between pop culture and pornography has shifted and blurred over the last decade. The last 10 years of our lives have been called “the rise of raunch” and “porno chic society,” which highlights the way media makers incorporate sexualized female bodies into their messages while totally denying they are pornographic. In the last 10 years of our lives, porn stars have become mainstream icons; the music industry has pushed the limits to the point of “soft-core” in words and images; and, as author Gail Dines (2010) describes, the pornography industry has worked carefully and strategically to “sanitize its products by stripping away the ‘dirt’ factor and reconstituting porn as fun, edgy, sexy and hot.”  Today, girls younger than 10 are sold Playboy panties and bras at popular stores, as well as other push-up bras and sexy underwear at the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch and the Limited Too. Victoria’s Secret is now hitting young teens hard with their PINK line of clothing and it’s pornographic ads.

Even Candyland got a sexy new makeover! Queen Frostine embodies every unattainable ideal we’re sold today.

In 2011, in the largest study of its kind, the Institute on Gender in Media found the more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in her life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become. Oh, there’s more: Of the female characters that exist in G-rated movies, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. Startlingly, the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. The vast majority of female characters in animated movies have an “ideal” body type that cannot exist in real life. In G-rated movies, for every one female character, there are three male characters. If it is a group scene, it changes to five to one, male to female. The only aspiration for female characters in nearly every instance is finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance.

When the millions of images of women and girls we see in media reflect a distorted reality where females are valued solely for their sexual appeal and the parts of their bodies, we have a problem and we must not only speak up, but fight back. These messages, often found in the most “innocent” of children’s programming and movies, are limiting female potential and halting our happiness. Let’s talk about how these sexualized ideals translate into reality.

Sexualized So Young: So What? Our work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze. As psychological researchers Fredrickson & Roberts describe it, self-objectification is manifested as “the tendency to perceive one’s body according to externally perceivable traits (how it appears) instead of internal traits (what it can do).” Research shows young girls and women “self-objectify” when they think of themselves mostly or exclusively in sexual terms and when they equate their “sexiness” with a narrow idea of physical attractiveness (achieved through extremes like disordered eating and cosmetic surgery). And what do you know? As puberty hits, young women begin to experience appearance-related anxiety the majority of the time, especially after viewing media images of sexualized female bodies or language so normalized today. Hospitalizations for little girls with eating disorders went up 100 percent in the last decade. Further, cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade to reach $12 billion in 2010, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on females – many younger than 18. No wonder that is the case when even the “mildest” of entertainment represents females of any age as sexual objects made up of digitally and surgically enhanced parts.

Dozens of studies show girls and women suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape: adolescent girls with a more objectified view of their bodies have diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness, and in a particularly insidious consequence of self-objectification, research proves undue attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance.* We know the dangerous and normalized act of female self-objectification works as a harmful tool to keep girls “in their place” as objects of sexual attraction and beauty, which seriously limits their ability to think freely and understand their value in a world so in need of their unique contributions and insight. There is more to be than eye candy, and we are responsible for believing that and spreading it far and wide.

Here is what we all need to do and know NOW:

We must Object to Self-Objectification.
Constant media messages turn females into objects as they zoom in on parts of their bodies, tilt up and down their bodies, and use dialogue/text revolving around their looks teach media consumers how to view females. When we understand the whole of objectification, we can better grasp the role it plays in our daily lives and the ways it may keep us from fulfilling all we want to do with our days – often in the form of self-objectification: Say you’re walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful day. Someone who has internalized an outsider’s perspective of herself will often spend more time adjusting her clothing or hair, wondering what other people are thinking of her, judging the shape of her shadow or reflection in a window, etc. She will picture herself walking – she literally turns herself into an object of vision – instead of enjoying the sunny weather, looking around, or thinking about anything else. If you find yourself the victim of this type of activity, you aren’t alone. In fact, you are just one of millions of females growing up in a world that teaches us to survey ourselves every waking moment.

Check out our pretty post-its you can slap on mirrors, magazines, etc. to share a happy reminder!

Life is beautiful when you live it – really experience it – not when you are more concerned about appearing beautiful as you try to live. When you think of your happiest times, were they in front of the mirror? Were you happiest when you were working to appear attractive or beautiful to others? Happiness and beauty come from doing, acting, being – outside the confines of being looked at. So, today, what will you do to shake off the outsider’s gaze you’ve been taught to envision of yourself? Will you experiment with what your life becomes when you spend less time with your reflection and more time doing, acting, and being? Will you enjoy the world around you instead of hoping others are enjoying their view of you? Will you do something your self-policing outsider’s gaze kept you from doing before – like speak in front of a group of people? Run without worrying about the jiggle? Go to the store without making yourself get all done up? Today is the day to remember there is more to be than eye candy. And when you begin to realize that, everything changes. You start to realize your worth, your ability to do good and contribute light and happiness, and your beauty are powerful and needed NOW. Not once you lose weight or once your hair is colored and cut or once your clothes are just right. The world – your kids, the strangers on the street, your coworkers, need you. Not a vision of you, but ALL of you. What will you find you are capable of?

We Must Be Critical of Media, Not Ourselves or Others. While the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, we are also the only industrialized country in the world without media literacy in public school curriculum. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a movie, train yourself and your family to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you and those you love! (Hint: try a media fast that’ll change your life!)

• Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media? Do you believe the females in your life would feel better or worse about themselves after viewing or hearing this media?
• Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages)
• Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, or website? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes)
• Is the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time? How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? 

We must unite with other like-minded people to speak up and fight back against these harmful messages that are inescapable today. Have you joined the fight? Our thriving Facebook fan page is a great place to start to get in touch with the most amazing positive messages and media literacy experts across the world.

For more strategies you can use right now to develop positive body image, try our five-step game plan. You’ll love it!

* Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Harter, 1998; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Impett, Schooler, and Tolman, 2006; Major, Barr, & Zubek, 1999; McConnell, 2001; Polce-Lynch, Myers, & Kilmartin, 1998; Roberts & Gettman, 2004; Slater and Tiggemann, 2002; Strelan & Hargreaves, 2005.


  1. Lilly

    This is a problem that is ALSO poisoning Facebook. Yesterday I was leisurely scrolling down my newsfeed when BAM! A picture of a woman in the shower, pressing her buttocks against a glass wall. You couldn’t see her face. She was wearing a tiny G-string bikini… emphasis on TINY. I immeiately reported the photo as offensive, with the reason of it containing “nudity or pornography”. A few hours later, Facebook answered my report, with the following reply “We reviewed the picture you reported. Our team considers it does not contain any nudity nor is it pornographic, so it won’t be elimminated”. Then they gave me the option to block the owner of the photo.

    And yet Facebook has been notorious for wanting to ban pictures of breastfeeding mothers, or breast cancer survivors who have undergone double mastectomies. If it weren’t because I think Facebook is useful to get in touch with people who live far from me, I’d be off it ASAP.

    • Courntey

      I can’t stand the fact that only genitals and a women’s nipples are considered pornographic. Two people could clearly naked & having sex in a photo but if you can’t see the genitals or a women’s nipples clearly, it’s family friendly…

      • Grackle

        They just don’t like seeing women’s breasts in any context that isn’t sexual. The reminder that sometimes breasts exist for something other than male titillation is what they consider obscene.

    • Anonymous

      There are other ways of keeping in touch with friends than Facebook! They call it eMail, phone, Skype even. Facebook is mind-numbing, thought-killing, time-wasting …..voyeurism! The only way to stop the vicious spread of young girls’ buttocks and barely covered nipples, whilst the said girls pose in the most vulgar, self-loathing provocative manner (and ‘for whom?’ I might ask!) is for people to ACTUALLY STOP USING THESE MEDIUMS!! They only thrive because of high numbers of users. Now imagine if every mother, father, brother, friend, relative etc of a girl who is posting grossly inappropriate (and potentially dangerous) decided to delete their facebook/twitter/myspace account? These matters – much like most others, are actually in the hands of the consumers! Too bed the consumers themselves do not realise this!…and there is the rub.

  2. Gerry Dorrian
    Gerry Dorrian03-15-2013

    As a father I found this very thought provoking – thank you!

  3. Carina

    Thank goodness for you guys! I study the narratives that are constructed around beauty, and of course what we need is more narratives like yours, which uncover the workings of the media and rewrite the narratives of beauty they present. The big question is how to spread this more widely – I’m so impressed by your billboards – but current media is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to be seen or heard above it. Still, I think we’ll get somewhere eventually…

  4. Justine

    Here are some eateries that aren’t even denying the fact that what they’re really interested in is selling breasts:

    This makes me sad to see the women and girls portrayed this way.

    • Kathleen

      It makes me sad for everyone – women for obvious reasons, girls because this is public fare and undermines their worth, boys because this is public fare that sends very mixed messages to them, and men because they are all painted with the same irresponsible, childish brush (not because they appreciate women’s sex appeal, but rather because fantasies belong in people’s heads, bedrooms and private space, not on public signs, especially when the materials or venues are grossly out of balance in that they don’t represent or cater to both sexes).

      Why do men not realize that their sexual fantasies are not for public consumption? (Fellows, please comment; we need to hear from you.) Women and men both fantasize. It’s not public material. It’s not suitable for kids.

      Indeed, why do we not care about the effect all of this has on our kids? How irresponsible do our society and governments have to be to continue to allow this public abuse of women for our children to learn from? What is the point of having better schools and other educational programs when there’s unacceptable public material, completely out of our parental control, that is undermining the very self-confidence we are trying to instill into our children?

      Fathers and adult men, we need you in this fight. We need to stand together against any form of sexism, be it aimed at women or men. We need to send a clear message to our governments that this is no longer acceptable. We need to understand that capitalism works well until the market is so saturated that marketers will stop at nothing to differentiate themselves, pitting men and women against each other and making money at our collective expense. The resulting portrayals of both men and women on a grand scale, and via such ubiquitous, multiple media platforms, against which we have no voice, no hope of expressing our dissent, is very damaging to society as a whole. It affects us not only personally, but also hurts our economy.

      In the words of my then 10-year-old son, who by virtue of a language barrier had just learned the real meaning behind hooters, and with whom none of this was ever previously discussed: “Mom, Dad, Hooters is kind of a stupid name for a restaurant, isn’t it?”.

  5. Jenn

    Can someone post the full title/citation of the 2011 research study done by the Institute on Gender in Media? I would love to read it.

  6. Castimonia

    As a father of two girls and a recovering sex addict, I struggle with society’s “acceptance” of pornography. Just the other day, I drove by an 18-wheeler with a full sized ad showing Kim Kardashian in lingerie! What I need to practice is educating my girls in what real beauty is and what it is not and pray that God watch over them as they live in our morally decaying society.

  7. Kelly

    I was in a Facebook group about health that just recently started posting more almost-nude pictures, calling anyone who was offended or turned off by this “prudes” or immature. While I don’t mind what parts of their bodies others feel comfortable showing, it was sad that those who weren’t as comfortable were being degraded and mocked. I wanted to scream, “YOU’RE CAPABLE OF BEING MORE THAN LOOKED AT!” They were masquerading these pics as if they were success stories, and maybe they were. But it felt more like insecure people looking for attention through sexualized images than anything. The men were all but drooling over the pictures, begging for more, and the women were feeding off of it, trying to determine how much more they could get away with showing. It made me sad for the women who felt compelled to find more and more ways to outdo each other, and the men, who were fawning over mostly-strangers.

    I originally joined this group for more perspective on healthy eating, but everyday the conversation would devolve into arguments about who was more healthy or more right, and there was constant bashing, ego stroking and other activities you normally see with people who are insecure, unhappy and searching for reassurance. So I shouldn’t have been surprised it turned into this.

    However, in the past, I might have marked myself as a prude. But thanks to Beauty Redefined, I understood what they were doing, and quietly left the group. Thanks for changing my perspective, ladies!

  8. Sara Bailey
    Sara Bailey07-10-2013

    I love that too that is the spirt and I flat that of you and I am so proud if you that and I am so happy for you and I am so glad that you are write thing like that is amazing to your self and I am so happy for you and great things love Sara bailey

  9. Caryn Jones
    Caryn Jones07-23-2013

    I appreciate that you’ve written about this. You are mistaken though. Many, in fact, most curricula being used in the US today involve media literacy. I tell my students (I teach middle school) that it’s really the most important thing I can teach them. The standards and testing being used and adopted throughout the country require more media literacy skills than most adults have in our country.

  10. Jorge

    Sorry about the error above… This is the error-free comment.

    I posted this on a previous (and apparently outdated) article, but I feel like it fits into this article as well. I received no real response the first time, so I’m hoping to get some thoughtful responses. I’m not here to pick a fight, but I do think the fear and ignorance that drives a lot of people can be counterproductive. I’m all about women feeling beautiful. I’m about everybody feeling beautiful. I do not think pornography is the “problem”. YOU (we, the people) get what you demand (in an economic sense). Might a surge in “pornographic” material in our society suggest that supply is catching up with demand? We need to look inward and ask the right questions about ourselves. Now, before I rewrite my entire older comment (see below), I present… my older comment:

    I find the language (i.e. rhetoric) used by the author in this movement to be very interesting and… well, hostile–”Dangerous, fight, struggle” etc. If I didn’t know any better, I might equate pornography (or the industry) itself as a lion that is preying on me or a hard drug that I could possibly overdose on. Truth be told, though, it poses no more of a physical threat to me than a nude painting at the Louvre.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong. I understand the moral vehemence in standing up against things that degrade women and other minorities, I’m just not sure that engaging in a ferocious “battle” against the porn industry is the best way to use our energy.

    Pornography is not a new phenomenon, and what’s considered to be obscene varies from culture to culture (Don’t believe me? Compare Las Vegas with Salt Lake City… now think Utah vs. Uganda). Why is it okay for when to walk around topless in many tribal villages in Africa and South America? Why aren’t men there raping every women whose breasts they see? Obviously, it’s because they’re culture has given different meaning to the female body than our culture has.
    I imagine that I just reiterated the author’s point in that our culture’s perception of the female body is the issue. Okay, touche. Where I take issue with it is that pornography (an inherently neutral medium when you break it down… i.e. paper, ink, pixels, etc.) is purportedly the antagonist and we are all just helpless victims of its grasp.

    We are not helpless victims. We are powerful (again, I feel like I’m reiterating the author’s point). But power is not synonymous with brute force. I feel like the power in this movement comes from neither “fighting” nor “embracing” pornography, but rather UNDERSTANDING and TRANSCENDING what it is. Pornography has as much power as we let it have over us (whether you want to believe it or not).

    Here, try this exercise:

    I’m going to write a word below, and your objective is to NOT think about that thing. Got it?

    Pink elephants.

    How’d you do? Wait… you failed? Okay, let’s try this again:

    Yellow monkeys.

    How about now? Really? You thought about yellow monkeys? The objective was to NOT think about yellow monkeys.

    Alright, enough insulting of your intelligence. My point is that you can’t not think about those words. You can’t NOT think about anything. Okay, but what does this have to do with pornography? Good question. Pornography is here. It is also there. I daresay that indeed it is everywhere. I’m not saying that it is right or that is is wrong. It just IS. This being the case, why can’t we all just acknowledge it for what it is–i.e. pink elephants? Impossible right? If I so much as look as pornography, I run the risk of ruining my relationship, shrinking my brain, becoming addicted, and you name whatever other bad thing that could happen to me.


    You could use it as a compass to explore yourself–which, by the way, I would argue is where the real issue resides. That’s right, I said it. You’ve got issues. Why do my civil liberties (i.e. First Amendment rights) have to be infringed upon because you can’t control yourself, you fear, your level of understanding?

    I know that sounds really abrasive, and it is far from my intent to disregard anybody’s pain or experience with this sensitive issue, but truth be told. We’re grown ups. The world is full of all sorts of things… neutral things… that we give value to. This being the case, we can change the value of these things in our minds. Yes, we have that power. But it starts with us. Porn isn’t your enemy; the way you perceive porn is your enemy.

    Try this on for size… the next time you’re in the grocery store and are “bombarded” with porn at the checkout stand, try this little exercise:

    Look at just the corner (I’m talking like that top right square inch) of the magazine. Think about that. What is it? Colors? Shapes? Now move on to each of the other corners. How about these ones? What’s different? Now, if you dare (I promise the magazine will not bite you or make you buy it), move your eyes in a little bit. What do you see now? And so on.

    The point is that YOU are in control of what you’re looking at, but even more importantly, YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF THE MEANING/VALUE YOU GIVE TO WHAT YOU SEE. It’s either an image of a slutty corporate pawn with the sole motive of persuading you to buy something… or it’s just Rhianna (just an example… I’m not saying Rhianna is a slut… case in point, though).
    Want to change our culture? Want to render the porn industry useless? Then change your perception of it as some inherently evil boogie man who’s out to get you and your children at any cost. Seek to understand it (and yourself) for what it is. I promise you, just as toxicologists study drugs without becoming addicts, you can gain a better understanding without becoming addicted.