Girls and the Dangers of Objectification
Today my ten year old daughter asked me if she could be in a beauty pageant. After receiving information in the mail about an upcoming pageant in our area, she springs this on me at breakfast. Alarmed and entirely unprepared for this
conversation first thing in the morning, I jokingly turn to my husband “Is 8:00 am too early to pour brandy into my coffee?”
I have been advocating for the respectful treatment of women for 20 years now – studying women’s studies, sociology, psychology, and working with a lot of women who’ve experienced violence and sexual assault. I could have easily spewed out a twenty minute lecture as to why I believe pageants are linked to greater societal problems, and cited studies to back up all of my points. But she’s ten. And I realize that the arguments downloading in my head are so impassioned, verbose and animated that if I dare to share them out loud I will sound like a rabid howler monkey screeching incoherently and this teaching moment with my child will be lost. Calm it down, I tell myself, and I wisely choose to say nothing for the moment.
My six year old daughter is celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday in Kindergarten today. Her class is having a party complete with birthday hats and balloons. A piece of me just wants to cry over how quickly we’ve progressed from Dr. Seuss to beauty contests in just a few short years.
I am aware that in our world there exists a continuum. On this continuum is a range of activities that objectify females and try to reduce them from human beings to mere physical objects. On the disturbing and violent end of this continuum we have people like rapper ‘Too $hort’ who recently released a video in XXL Magazine graphically encouraging his audience to sexually assault middle-school aged girls. (Click here if you’d like to take action against that call to violence.) Like others who have mistreated girls and women sexually, the 45 year old musician disrespectfully views girls as inanimate objects placed there solely for the pleasure and misuse of others. A recent study shows that 1 in 4 adolescent girls is sexually harassed or assaulted in grades 7 through 12. That is the society that we’re living in.
Now I am not asserting that a beauty pageant is a form of sexual assault but I am asserting that it’s an activity that objectifies girls and can be placed somewhere along this continuum. As a psychotherapist I bear witness to the pain that this objectification causes in the lives of other females every single day and I don’t want my daughters exposed to anything on this continuum!
So I load my daughters into the car. I also place into the car the invisible presence of every female I have every known who has been treated like a mere object: A local girl assaulted after school, a dear friend raped in college, amazing community members, accomplished professionals, devoted wives and loving mothers - all experiencing severe pain and long term effects from the violent and invasive ways they were treated like sex objects as girls. The vehicle is quite full and these female spirits all sit quietly, looking ahead as we roll to school. My daughter doesn’t know about these women’s stories or their presence on our morning commute but I do. I am reminded that I have a responsibility to speak out on their behalves so that they can remain anonymous, as years later these victims continue to feel a deep sense of shame.
I ask my daughter why she’s interested in the pageant. I listen. I validate her reasons. “Who wouldn’t want to win a new convertible? That would be a really cool prize.”
She says, “I hear a ‘but’ coming, Mom.” Yes, this kid knows me well.
I ask her, “Isn’t it odd how we can’t even imagine the fifth grade boys in your class on a stage competing to see who is ‘the prettiest’? Yet we can imagine all of the girls in your class doing this. What’s up with that?”
My inner howler monkey is getting riled up again and still finds this conversation completely insufficient so I continue. “Honey, you are more than a beautiful face and a healthy body. You are a whole person. You have intellect and you have feelings and those things matter a lot. I can’t let you be involved in anything that treats you just as an object.”
My daughter is angry at this answer, but oh well. Her anger will pass and I know deep in my bones that I did the right thing. It wouldn’t be age appropriate to share with my children the deep psychological price that many females pay for being objectified. Yet if I wish for my kids to live in a better world I have to incorporate the cost of the objectification of girls into my decision making on all matters great and small, on the political issues that arise in society and on the issues that come up at the breakfast table.
Psychotherapist Angela Sasseville, MA, LPC, NCC is the Director of Flourish Counseling in Denver, CO and the author of “Families Under Financial Stress”. You can find Angela, her book and her riled up inner howler monkey at www.FlourishCounseling.com.