Gender Privilege, Childhood and Over-Sexualisation
It’s no secret that youth is sexually commodified. We don’t, however, talk as much about how this is disproportionately true for women. As actress Carrie Fisher said so astutely,
And at the same time, young girls aren’t allowed to be children. The over-sexualisation of women’s bodies begins way before they become women. It starts when we buy babies' onesies that say “I hate my thighs”. It continues as the dimensions of children's clothes are determined by the gender the item will be marketed to, with girls' shorts being, on average, 65% shorter than boys'. We can see it in children's toys and their entertainment, all the while teaching young girls that their worth is rooted in their bodies.
There is a very difficult balance to strike here. Nobody’s worth is determined by what they wear, or how they look, and victim blaming of course make absolutely no sense. I’m not suggesting we should stop young girls from wearing shorts. Instead, I am angry at the fact that a young girl wearing shorts can be read as dressing provocatively. I’m angry that, as a young girl approaches the pre-teen phase, she suddenly becomes aware that her body in shorts will be read differently, despite the fact that she is still a child. I’m angry that that young girl may feel pressure to define her worth by the clothes she wears, and the reaction she gets when she wears certain clothes. I’m angry that, in contrast, young boys don't think twice putting on their shorts in the summer.
Overemphasis on the importance of a young girls’ bodies over and above any other aspect of her person is a natural precursor to low body confidence, and body shaming. It has wider implications for the way society reads girls and women. Studies have found that when the same girl or woman is shown to an audience wearing a typically ‘sexual’ or ‘revealing’ outfit versus dressed more conservatively, the former is perceived as less intelligent and less moral. Similarly, if a young girl or woman is shown wearing a bikini versus ordinary clothing, the same conclusions are drawn. A rape victim depicted wearing more ‘revealing’ clothes is judged as being more responsible for the attack - see rape culture*. (Read more about these studies here).
The over-sexualisation of young girls also feeds into a heightened sense of bodily awareness that can follow women around their entire lives: being more aware of the space you take up; the environment you are in; the people around you. Not just so that you can guess how you are being received, but to gage your safety in any given situation. Because if your body is automatically more provocative, it will automatically receive more unwanted attention, no matter what you wear or how you act.
As always, there is racial dimension to the over-sexualisation of children. A recent guardian article by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff noted a study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, which found that "adults view black girls as ‘less innocent’ and ‘more adult-like’ than their white peers". The study also notes that "adults think black girls, particularly between the ages of five and fourteen, need less protection, less nurturing and know more about sex than white girls" of the same age. Brinkhurst-Cuff draws parallels of these findings to the experiences of black girls in the UK's education system. There is also a wealth of literature (and personal experience) regarding the hyper-sexualisation of black women - for example this article by Vanessa Ntinu on gal-dem.
An interesting dynamic to explore at this juncture is the experience of trans people. I was recently watching True Trans, a documentary following Laura Jane Grace (punk rock singer of Against Me!), and other members of the trans community. (As a side note, I highly rate this documentary and would encourage everyone to watch it - it’s available in small 10 minute segments about different topics on Youtube). I was particularly touched at the words of one woman in the documentary:
Now, let me be clear. In the use of this quote, I do not in any way intend to speak over the trauma of gender dysphoria, gender expectations and gender policing that trans people can often experience. I am not implying that the male privilege a transwoman may experience before she comes out as trans means she is any less of a woman, and I accept that a trans person’s expression of gender can just as well incur more oppression than any male privilege could circumvent.
I simply found this woman’s personal experience of her femininity and her own gendered body to be absolutely empowering. While watching the documentary, this woman affirmed to me that it is possible to be a woman without inheriting the legacy that over-sexualisation can have on body image and body awareness. Reclaiming your own body back from public consumption is difficult, and if we’re honest not really possible in any sense other than in the way you think. But it could be personally revolutionary.
Of course, this kind of thinking does not directly help those young black girls unfairly penalised in the classroom, or any young girl being taught that her body is simultaneously her most valuable asset and her biggest flaw. But it does open up space for conversation, conversation that will hopefully turn into action. If we all consider our own conceptions of our bodies, and how we view other women's bodies, perhaps we can become more aware of the way that rape culture and the over-sexualisation of young girls has shaped how we think. And in becoming aware in this way, perhaps we can change our attitudes and actions, negate any role we may play in perpetuating the over-sexualisation of women and girls, and help build a feminist future where shorts are just shorts, no matter who wears them.
* rape culture can be defined as "a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse". (thanks google)
Article by Mairi Lubelska