Smolak, L. and S.K. Murnen. 2011. “The Sexualization of Girls and Women as a Primary Antecedent of Self-Objectification.”


Smolak, Linda and Sarah K. Murnen. 2011. “The Sexualization of Girls and Women as a Primary Antecedent of Self-Objectification.” Pp. 53-76 in Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions, edited by Rachel M. Calogero, Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, and J. Kevin Thompson. York, PA: Maple-Vail Books, American Psychological Association.

“Insomuch as a culture endorses sexual objectification, societal messages will pressure women to engage in practices that increase their heterosexual appeal, despite the potential risks associated with a sexualized appearance” (53).

Sexualization not only is demanded to be attractive to men, but seeps the importance of attractiveness to success in other areas of life. Following norms of sexualization (and self-objectifying) may prove beneficial to some degree, being met with economic and social benefit, but may also pose risk. Avoidance of self-objectification may limit one’s social and economic benefits, but to some degree, prevents the impacts of sexualized appearances.

Literature on sexualization (see also APA 2007) suggests that:

  • A person’s value lies heavily (or only) on sexual appeal
  • Sex appeal is based upon physical indicators of participating within narrowly-defined definitions of attractiveness and beauty
  • Objectification and sexualization goes hand in hand
  • Sexuality (and demand to fit within conventions of attractiveness) is forced upon people – often children and young adults

Sexualization differs from healthy sexuality, which is based upon “mutual responsibility, respect, control, and pleasure within the context of an intimate relationship” (here 55, see also APA 2007), and involves choice of sexual activities and partners, providing pleasure sans fear or shame (O’Sullivan, McCrudden, and Tolman 2006). Sexualization excludes mutuality, using the other without regard to the used’s needs, interests, desires – this tends to be “disempowering, limiting, and constraining of women’s sexual options and defining what constitutes pleasure for women instead of facilitating women’s own choices and preferences” (55).

Sexualization of women and girls can be seen in media, messages from peers and family, the proliferation of appearance-based enhancement products, and material culture (particularly clothing) – (Levin and Kilbourne 2008). Commercial culture promotes sexualization, as “Women are taught to be sexy, but not necessarily sexual, a position that is not consistent with the idea of natural sexiness and sexuality” (56).  Feminist critique of sexualization notes the social, economic, and political impacts of the process – supporting gender stratification, promoting industries that surround women’s self-care/self-enhancement, and perpetuate women’s subordination in society – through limiting women’s options and keeping them dependent upon men.

Media depictions of sexualized women offer sexuality as a form of power, however, these images frequently ignore or exclude the potential violence/degradation that can be part of women’s experience of sexualization and sexuality. Sexualization makes women physically and psychologically vulnerable – through engaging in beauty practices, women divert time and energy from other endeavors.  Additionally, sexy clothing has been used as excuses for men’s sexual violence upon women (Lorber 2010). Women who are sexually objectified tend to be perceived as and thus treated with lower status (Hessy-Biber et al 2006; Smolak and Murnen 2007).

Third-wave feminists address sexuality as a source of power – that any choice made by women is one of power (Lorber 2010) – even ones that involve adopting conventional or sexualized modes of femininity. Some authors argue that sexualized activities (stripping, porn, pole dancing) can be fun and empowering (McGhan 2007, Pollet and Hurwitz 2007). Girls and women considered attractive experience greater social success, and those who are attractive (but not too sexy) are more likely to be hired and paid more for jobs (Cawley 2004; Engemann and Owyang 2005). “Thus, there are clear societal rewards for women who participate in their own sexualization and thereby support the continuation of the cultural sexualization of women” (57).

Sexualization communicates normative treatment of women within heterosexual relationships, which are internalized and used to guide attitudes and behaviors (often directed towards self). Sexualization can come from modeled behaviors and interactions, but also from experiences of the sexual violence spectrum – however, these same acts of sexual violence committed by men are justified as reasons to rely on other men for protection (Sheffield 2007).

Even in very young girls, clothing and messages they are subjected to offer their current/future roles as sex objects, through modeling adult women’s norms. Their bodies become “projects” at early ages (Brumberg 1997), concerning themselves with weight and physical appearance. “They are taught to be sexy not in order to be sexual but in preparation to serve the sexualized gaze and desires of men when they are older so that they will think of sexualization as ‘normal’” (59). Krassas et al (2001) noted that in both Cosmopolitan and Playboy, the images contains reinforced the normalcy of the male gaze upon women – that women’s primary concern/use was to be sexually attractive to men. Additionally, these magazines prescribe means of how to be sexually attractive to men  – through diet, exercise, makeup and sex activity regimes.

Sexist events (sexualizing comments and behaviors by men) are fairly common for college-aged women (Landry and Mercurio 2009), experiencing far more experiences of sexist events than their male counterparts (Swim et al 2001).

Kim et al 2007 – heterosexual script – “a set of interlocking expectations for the sexual behaviors of women and men that maintain a sexist and heterosexist society” (here 67) – based upon masculine sex subjects, sexual aggressors – through demonstrating wealth and power, women who are supposed to be passive sexual objects (yet resist the advances of the masculine subject) – are able to gain a mate; women are expected to be subtle, passive, or self-exploiting to gain the attentions of men.

Women though are not “cultural dopes” (Dellinger and Williams 1997) – they are cognizant of the processes and occurrence of sexualization – describing “double consciousness” of being critically conscious of the impacts of objectification, but still wanting to reap the rewards of compliance. Rubin et al 2004 note that rejecting beauty ideals as a type of radical resistance – however, how to compete with substantial and salient rewards?


American Psychological Association. 2007. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC:

Brumberg,J.J. 1997. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House.

Cawley, J. 2004. “The Impact of Obesity on Wages.” Journal of Human Resources 39: 451-474.

Dellinger, K. and C.L. Williams. 1997. “Makeup at Work: Negotiating Appearance Rules in the Workplace.” Gender & Society 11: 151-177.

Engemann, K. and M. Owyang. 2005. “So Much for that Merit Raise: The Link between Wages and Appearance.” The Regional Economist. St. Louis, MO: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Hesse-Biber, S.,P. Leavy, C.E. Quinn, and J. Zonio.2006. “The Mass Marketing of Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders: The Social Psychology of Women, Thinness, and Culture.” Women’s Studies International Forum 29: 208-224.

Kim, J.L., C.L. Sorsoli, K. Collins, B.A. Zylbergold, D. Schooler, and D. Tolman. 2007. “From Sex to Sexuality: Exposing the Heterosexual Script on Primetime Network Television.” Journal of Sex Research 44: 145-157.

Krassas, N.R., J.M. Blauwkamp, and P. Wesselink. 2001. “Boxing Helena and Corseting Eunice: Sexual Rhetoric in Cosmopolitan and Playboy Magazines.” Sex Roles 44: 751-771.

Landry, L. and A. Mercurio. 2009. “Discrimination and Women’s Mental Health: The Mediation Role of Control.” Sex Roles 61: 685-7040

Levin, D. and J. Kilbourne. 2008. So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. New York: Ballantine.

Lorber, J. 2010. Gender Inequality: Feminist Theory and Politics, Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

McGhan, M. 2007. “Dancing toward Redemption.” Pp. 284-288 in Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by S. Shaw and J. Lee. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

O’Sullivan, L., M. McCrudden, and D. Tolman. 2006. “To Your Sexual Health! Incorporating Sexuality into the Health Perspective.” Pp. 192-199 in Handbook of Girl’s and Women’s Psychological Health, edited by J. Worell and C.D. Goodheart. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pollet, A. and P. Hurwitz. 2007. “Strip till You Drop.” Pp. 548-551 in Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by S. Shaw and J. Lee. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Rubin, L.R., C.J. Nemeroff, and N.F. Russo. 2004. “Exploring Feminist Women’s Body Conciousness.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 28: 27-37.

Sheffield, C.J. 2007. “Sexual Terrorism.”  Pp. 111-130 in Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by L.L. O’Toole, J.R. Shiffman, and M.L.K. Edwards. New York: New York University Press.

Smolak, L. and S.K. Murnen. 2007. “Feminism and Body Image.” Pp. 236-258 in The Body Beautiful, edited by V. Swami and A. Furnham. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Swim, J.K., L.L. Hyers, L.L. Cohen, and M.J. Ferguson. 2001. “Everyday Sexism: Evidence for its Incidence, Nature, and Psychological Impact from Three Daily Diary Studies.” Journal of Social Issues 57: 31-53.


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