So it looks like Miley Cyrus has taken to the stripper pole. And this is a surprise? Like Britney and Christina Aguilera before her, it?s clear that as she outgrows her tweens and moves into young adulthood, Miley?s handlers are trying to get the Mickey Mouse Monkey off of her back. I?m all for this transition happening. For it?s only natural for a sixteen year old to begin to dress and act more like a woman and less like a girl.
The problem is: why does becoming a woman have to mean becoming a sexual object whose existence and purpose is to only please men? And where does this transition leave all of Cyrus? tween fans? If they are anything like I was as a little girl, these girls will be left very confused about what it means to be become a woman.
Remember Grease? Well, I watched that movie about seven times. I knew every scene and every song. I was in second grade. If you recall, in an effort to get with the times and earn the acceptance of Danny, Sandy goes from wearing white dresses and sneakers to skin-tight black pants and four-inch red stilettos. She also perms out her hair and starts smoking like a chimney as she shimmies her way into the back seat of Danny?s car–uh, I mean, back into Danny?s heart.
It wasn?t too long after I saw Grease for the first time that my mom allowed me to get a full perm. At age eight, I ended up looking more like little orphan Annie than Danny?s version of Sandy. I loathed the way I looked and despised everyone that called me cute. I wanted to be sexy, damn it.
Soon after, my mom caught my sister, our friend Karen and me in the backyard wearing string bikinis with our tops stuffed with socks. We puffed on cigarettes and posed sexily, just as we had seen Sandy do in Grease.
Luckily, I turned out ok. I don?t smoke and I don?t lounge around with fake boobs in my bikini trying to look sexy for men. I wish I could say the same for our friend Karen. Informed by her upbringing and other powerful outside influences including what she saw on TV and in film, she ended up growing up way too fast. When I was in fifth grade, I saw Karen at the beach. She was drunk, in a bikini and holding a bottle of vodka. She must have been about thirteen. By seventeen, Karen was considered the school slut, was in an abusive relationship and addicted to cocaine.
I?m sharing this story because Karen ended up the way she did partially as a result of the media messages she absorbed?ads, songs, movies, and TV shows loaded with contradictions and confusing messages that exploit female sexuality as something that solely exists for the consumption of men. The real lives of women that these media images glamorize are way more complicated and laden with consequences. There?s a big difference between women who have to work the pole, and Miley Cyrus who pretends to.
With powerful corporate brands dictating what it means to be a woman or girl, the identity of tweens is at great risk of being haphazardly built around a fantasy. The book Data Smog, states that the average American encountered 560 daily advertising messages in 1971. By 1997 that number had increased to over 3,000 per day. And that?s just ads! Americans are bombarded by thousands of media images everyday, from songs, videos, ads and movies to television shows. According to one study:
Many of these images reinforce ideas of physical attractiveness by sexual objectification, which focuses on bodies and appearance rather than people’s feelings and behaviors.
In essence, if the sexpot rebel identity fed to women and girls meant love, success, health and happiness, than that would be ok. But it doesn?t. Instead it sends the message that we are more worthwhile for how sexy or attractive we look, than who we are or what we feel. As a result, this over-identification with the media?s narrowly defined gender roles leads to low self-esteem and negative health and educational outcomes in both women and girls.
Which makes me put the question back out to you?In today?s world where media messages bombard us every day, how do we raise healthy, happy and aware young women?