I remember ever since I was young, that preparing for Halloween was an uncomfortable experience. For my three brothers, it seemed easy. When visiting the costume store, they could choose any outfit in the whole place without a problem. I, on the other hand, had to carefully sort through a selection of revealing options to find something age-appropriate.
Sexy firefighter? No. Naughty nun? No, again. Sexy piñata? What does that even mean? For lack of better options, I usually ended up constructing a costume out of clothes I already owned.
Now that I am older, I realize that this hypersexualized depiction of women is not unique to Halloween, but rather is an everyday occurrence. I also understand how this mentality actively contributes to and justifies sexual violence against girls and women.
The idea that I had to look constantly “sexy” to be considered attractive was instilled in me when I was very young. The second I turned 13, my world of J. Crew T-shirts and trousers from the Gap suddenly seemed juvenile and undesirable. As I entered into the world of crushing and dating, I became convinced that male validation defined how interesting or pretty I was. I started to wear tighter shirts and shorter skirts, conforming to what I believed boys liked. I even took catcalling as some strange form of a compliment, maintaining that such remarks were telling of how beautiful I looked that day.
When October of my freshman year rolled around, I was planning on attending my first high school party. I understood that I had to dress a certain way to even begin to fit in there.
“OK,” I thought, “I need something hot but not slutty. Put together, but not trying too hard. Something that I can cover up so I’ll feel safe on the Uber ride home. But, I have to show some skin or nobody will even look my way.”
One day, on the hunt for the perfect costume, my friend and I were scrolling through the endless catalog of options online. Just like when I was younger, I saw the word “sexy” in every single outfit description, further convincing me that it was expected and necessary for me to dress proactively, now at the age of fifteen.
Unbeknownst to my friend and me, one of our school administrators was watching over our shoulders as we shopped. After taking a look at my friend’s computer, he said something along the lines of, “I sure hope you are not going to wear those costumes.” We were embarrassed, but it seemed harmless enough. My friend and I replied, “Of course not!”
Later that day, the same administrator approached me at my volleyball practice. He pulled me aside. He told me that it was ironic that I was looking at those sort of revealing costumes online, since I happen to dress in that very manner every day. All the while, I stood there in my tiny spandex shorts, singled out, horribly uncomfortable and embarrassed.
I do not believe that this administrator had malicious intent with his words. But, I do believe that he contributed to a culture that hyper-sexualizes young girls and women. I was only fifteen when he, a man older than my father, told me that he paid attention, day after day, to how revealing I dressed. I felt uncomfortable that an adult, let alone a faculty member at my school, was even considering me in such a way.
His words made me realize that I could not win. If I dressed too revealingly, I would not be respected. I also knew that if I dressed too conservatively, I would not fit into the cutthroat social scene that exists at a Los Angeles high school.
I believe that most every woman has had an experience similar to mine, instilling the idea that we have only two options in this world: we can either be viewed as sluts or as prudes. Even more, it is implied that if we dress in a revealing way, we are somehow more to blame if we are then assaulted, harassed, or raped. This mentality blatantly blames victims instead of the actual perpetrators of these attacks, therefore justifying and inhibiting more violence of the same nature.
Outside of Halloween and dress codes, women and girls are depicted as sex objects across the media — in video games, in song lyrics, and in commercials, to name a few examples.
According to researchers at Wesleyan University, across 58 magazines, 51.8% of the advertisements featuring women portrayed us as objects of sexual conquest. Even more, advertisements in men’s magazines objectified girls in this way 76% of the time.
Remember Carl’s Junior’s advertisements from a few years ago? Kim Kardashian was writhing on a bed in a sheer dress while savoring a burger. Kate Upton doing the same in a car, while undressing and becoming visibly aroused.
Companies such as Carl’s Junior rely on barely-clothed women to appeal to consumer America, speaking to the values of our country. And, just as the comments from my school administrator were not harmless, these depictions of women in the media are not harmless either.
According to the American Psychology Association, the hyper-sexualization of women and girls in the media has a real effect on the way we view ourselves. Such demeaning depictions undermine our confidence to the point that we feel discomfort in our own bodies. Hyper-sexualization also leads to some girls developing actual mental health problems, such as depression and eating disorders. Finally, the APA found that depictions of girls as sex objects can negatively impact our ability to develop a healthy image of ourselves and of our sexuality.
Not only does objectification have a negative impact on girls’ self esteems, it inhibits real sexual violence. This is because it is easier for men, who are most commonly the perpetrators of sexual violence, to justify the assault and rape of women if they consider us sex toys rather than equals. As a result of this mindset, 81% of American women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, according to an online survey conducted by the Stop Street Harassment organization.
So, instead of telling your daughters to dress conservatively, for fear that they will be stared at by their male classmates and teachers, educate your sons and brothers. Instead of slut shaming girls, stop buying into media and products that tell us our value lies in how much skin we show. Maybe then, we can begin to feel safe in our own bodies.