The Hypersexualization of Young Girls on Social Media
The culture of the male gaze, self-imposed across social media, and rewarded with engagement, applauds underage girls for hypersexualization. Self-sexualization can be empowering for women, and even considered as a feminist statement, but it puts youth at risk of pedophilia and psychological detriment through their engagement within social networks. Women develop a sense of internalized sexualization at the hands of oppressive patriarchy and the belief that their sexual attractiveness to males is an integral part of their identity that begins at a young age. In a study by McKenney and Bigler, it was found that young girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization wear more revealing clothing, have a behavioral manifestation of self-objectification, and even body shame other women at higher rates. In recent years, social media influencers have become younger and younger, and thus, sexualized in each one of their social posts by adults that follow them and engage with their content (McKenney and Bigler). Comments sections are flooded with adults lusting after these young girls, leaving them entirely vulnerable to the pedophilic male gaze and the harmful scrutiny and psychological impact that comes with internet popularity. The “male gaze”, coined by Mulvey, is the perspective of a heterosexual man embodied in the audience of visual media with a tendency of objectifying and sexualizing women. This is often self-imposed on social media through hypersexualized posting. The current sexualized ideology of women affords young girls opportunities to express themselves sexually in ways that they find subjectively powerful and fun which can be empowering, whether that be through learning a new dance on Tik Tok or posting a picture from the beach. To oppose this, it can be argued that equating subjective enjoyment with empowerment ignores oppressive cultural practices such as sexism and the patriarchy along with the economic practices of social networks that routinely commodify women's bodies. (Daniels and Zurbriggen).
Using a narrowed social network analysis approach, this research paper will examine the correlation between the self-sexualization of young girls on social media, the social media “rewards” they reap, and the detriments that come with this hypersexualization at a young age. Social Networks are economically focused, and the value derived from sexualized content has been analyzed to be more valuable, even if it’s subject is prepubescent. Young girls are especially likely to adopt the gendered behaviours that their peers or role models take part in when they are rewarded for said behaviour (Starr and Ferguson). This is applicable to social media behaviours and the trend toward sexualized content.
This thesis will be explored through the analysis of the repercussions and pedophilia that is normalized within social media culture. Popular visual media apps such as Tik Tok and Instagram favour content that sexualizes women, and in recent years this has been explicitly evident for the cases of young women, as explored in Ramsey and Horan’s article in which they found sexualized photos of women perform better in terms of likes and followers as opposed to their non-sexualized counterparts on the same profile (Ramsey and Horan). This data is reflected in my own Instagram as well. Take these photos of my best friend and I for example. In the first photo we are both fully clothed on a boat, and the second we are in bikinis also on a boat. The engagement is vastly different, clearly favouring the more provocative image.
While employing the male gaze appears to be beneficial while on social networking applications, the findings within the Daniels and Zurbriggen article explore the real-life social effects and detriment of how posting sexualized photos impact the relationships between women negatively, putting them in the way of increased scrutiny opposed to their less sexualized counterparts (Daniels and Zurbriggen). The research will also employ the findings of multiple academic studies that use different demographics to analyze the response of youth sexualization across social media platforms. Combined this is all to explore the ever-growing damage this can cause to developing girls.
An example of this hypersexualization prevalent on social media is 14-year-old influencer, Danielle Cohn. The young star gained breakout fame on the app Musical.ly (now Tik Tok), becoming one of the first social stars to surpass 10 million followers on the app. Danielle Cohn is now known for being an underage sex symbol and being misleading about her age. She was featured in a Netflix documentary series Follow This in which she discussed how her sexualized presence affected her relationships and what led to her being homeschooled.
“It was just a normal school. Like until I started getting big. Then girls started fighting me, because they were getting jealous of it. I lost all my friends.”
(Harrop and Hilton)
Her social networks are seemingly curated to make her look older, dressing in revealing clothing and hypersexualized positions appearing as women older than her would (Figure 1). Her fame rose mostly from her appearance on the app, with no discernible talent or focused content, her followers are just coming to see her. Cohn being sexualized comes only because adults are sexualizing a child. Young girls like Cohn may partake in a behaviour such as dancing or jumping around in a Tik Tok video as a fun activity, but as this behaviour is sexualized, the cultural conditioning leads viewers to see it through the lens of the male gaze, degrading young women to a mere sexual object (Mulvey).
“The extent to which a society endorses sexual objectification is related to the likelihood of girls/women engaging in self-sexualizing practices, such as posting sexualized photos on social media, intended to increase their heterosexual appeal regardless of possible costs associated with enacting a sexualized appearance”
(Daniels and Zurbriggen)
As a result of cultural pressure, many girls like Cohn objectify themselves, thus shifting the focus of attention to their bodies based on how they look as opposed to what they as individuals can do. This rise to fame has come with many fans and just as many critics. Cohn receives copious hate comments further reinforcing misogynistic slut-shaming ideologies that can have harmful consequences on her sense of self. Mini-celebrities like Cohn raise the debate between this topic being concerned with feminist ideology that persists that women should have the autonomy over how they present themselves and their bodies, on the contrary, it exposes dangerous practices for teenage girls who are not yet familiarized with the world and cultural ideologies around them.
Objectification theory argues that Western societies routinely sexually objectify the female body and raise it to be scrutinized and objectified for pleasure and evaluation of men (Fredrickson and Roberts).
“Objectification theory posits that the cultural milieu of sexual objectification functions to socialize girls and women to treat themselves as objects to be evaluated on the basis of appearance...Other people's evaluations of their physical appearance can determine how girls and women are treated in day-to-day interactions, which in turn can shape their social and economic life outcomes”
(Fredrickson et al)
It is a difficult line to debate, as there is a public discomfort and shame around watching young girls figure out their sexuality in the public eye. From TV stars to social media influencers, the public appears to be implicitly implicated in how young women grow into their sexuality, especially when there is so much discourse around women’s bodies and how much skin they expose.
Males are taught early to learn and act upon (heterosexual) sexuality whereas girls are taught modesty while also having to perform their burgeoning sexuality for the male gaze (Valenti). This sexual double standard provides the basis for the practice of slut-shaming which describes the process of condemning women for presumed sexual activity. In a study conducted in 2016, it was found that women who chose to post photos in underwear or swimwear on social media were looked down upon by their peers and ascribed behavioral codings such as being called a “slut” or a “skank” by study participants (Daniels and Zurbriggen). Young women are caught in an endless cycle of facing pressures of appearing attractive and combating the negative connotations that are associated with it. As noted by social commentator John Berger,
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping… Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another"
This illustrates the intrapsychic costs of self-objectification and the social repercussions that follow it. This way of viewing one’s self depletes mental and emotional resources as the woman is in the constant reproduction of herself by envisioning an observer’s view of herself. In Daniels and Zurbriggen’s study, it was demonstrated that when study participants who partook in experimentally induced self-objectification, it caused women to experience body shame and restricted eating and even caused them to perform poorly on mathematics tests due to the emotional and psychological detriments of the study (Daniels and Zurbriggen).
Young women are a paradoxical position of experiencing social and cultural pressure to be perceived as sexy while simultaneously risking penalties and social detriment for this behavior. Social media often reinforces a culture of sexism and misogyny that is then imposed on all those that partake in it. Adolescent girls are subjected to unsolicited photos of genitalia from men, pressured to send nude photos, and subject to mini-competitions within social groups that equate their “likes” online to social value and thus, must portray themselves in sexualized ways to gain a competitive edge and social validation. Non-compliance with cultural expectations results in social and personal complications and repercussions that can be majorly damaging. According to the objectification theory, the first psychological consequence of the cultural treatment of objectification is self-objectification (Fredrickson and Roberts). The practice of self-objectification across social media posits women’s concern with their appearance and sexuality as a competitive standpoint and as a social survival tactic to garner attention and acceptance across social networks. The emotional and behavioral repercussions of self-objectification reflect the psychological damage that the cultural objectifying view of the female body is doing to a society of young women growing up on social media.
The meanings and expectations ascribed to the female body and young women’s sexuality must change as a culture. It is not teenage girls to blame for this problem, it is the society they were raised in.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. British Broadcasting Corp., 2012
Daniels, Elizabeth A., and Eileen L. Zurbriggen. “‘It’s Not the Right Way to Do Stuff on Facebook:’ An Investigation of Adolescent Girls’ and Young Women’s Attitudes Toward Sexualized Photos on Social Media.” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 20, no. 4, 2016, pp. 936–964., doi:10.1007/s12119-016-9367-9.
Fredrickson, Barbara L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts. “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women's Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1997, pp. 173–206., doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x.
Fredrickson, Barbara L., et al. “‘That Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance’: Correction to Fredrickson Et Al. (1998).” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 75, no. 5, 1998, pp. 1098–1098., doi:10.1037/h0090332.
Harrop, Jessica, and Shani O. Hilton. “Follow This ‘Teen Boss.’” Follow This, season 2, episode 2, BuzzFeed News, 28 Sept. 2018.
McKenney, Sarah J., and Rebecca S. Bigler. “Internalized Sexualization and Its Relation to Sexualized Appearance, Body Surveillance, and Body Shame Among Early Adolescent Girls.” The Journal of Early Adolescence 36, no. 2 (February 2016): 171–97. doi:10.1177/0272431614556889.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1999.
Ramsey, Laura R., and Amber L. Horan. “Picture This: Womens Self-Sexualization in Photos on Social Media.” Personality and Individual Differences 133 (2018): 85–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.022.
Starr, Christine R., and Gail M. Ferguson. “Sexy Dolls, Sexy Grade-Schoolers? Media & Maternal Influences on Young Girls’ Self-Sexualization.” Sex Roles 67, no. 7-8 (June 2012): 463–76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0183-x.
Valenti, J. The purity myth: How America's obsession with virginity is hurting young women. Berkeley, CA. Seal (2010)