While the U.S. Capitol grapples with sexual harassment allegations, less than a mile away, thousands of travelers take for granted the wall-size posters of lingerie-clad models at the Victoria’s Secret in Union Station.
hile the U.S. Capitol grapples with sexual-harassment allegations, less than a mile away, thousands of travelers take for granted the wall-size posters of lingerie-clad models at the Victoria’s Secret in Union Station.
In a city where more than half of women have college degrees, women passing through the station have to wonder if their hard work, character, and intelligence are really enough—or if people expect them to meet another standard.
We’ve had reason to hope that how our society views women is taking a turn for the better: The #MeToo movement was just named Time’s “Person of the Year” for encouraging women to speak out about sexual harassment. This social media movement has helped bring about real change, leading to the firings and resignations of dozens of individuals in the highest ranks of politics and media.
But for all the movement’s positive influence, bringing down individual perpetrators isn’t enough.
Sexualized images of women in the fashion industry (like Victoria’s Secret), Hollywood, TV shows, and magazines are counteracting the work of the #MeToo movement to give women a dignified voice in our culture. They’re cluttering the walls of our world and stunting our imaginations—and both men and women accept them, even buy them.
We’re quick to point out that these depictions of women warp the minds of men, desensitizing them to female nudity and creating false ideals of femininity. But these images also ruin the imaginations of women, who have hopes, desires, and creativity shaped by the possibilities they envision.
To promote women’s dignity and freedom effectively, images need to direct our imaginations in the right way—not just encouraging men to respect women, but encouraging women to respect themselves and pursue what makes them most human. This requires the rejection of objectifying images by both consumers and the industries that promote them.
The ubiquitous sexualization of women in media is no secret. One in ten women in advertisements is portrayed in sexually revealing clothes, according to a 2017 study from marketing communications company J. Walter Thompson New York and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Just one in five women in the ads had jobs, the study found.
Images are some of the most powerful forms of media: An MIT study found that we process images within as little as 13 milliseconds, and other studies have found that we remember pictures much better than text.
No wonder, then, that in a 2007 study commissioned by Dove, 77 percent of 10-to-14-year-old girls said images of models and celebrities made them feel fat, ugly, and depressed. Almost 90 percent expressed anxiety over their appearances.
Our imaginations are formed by the information we imbibe — photos, art, books, and memories of our experiences. They shape our expectations and direct our actions.
If a girl can picture herself as a happy doctor or lawyer or mother, she’ll be more likely to strive for it. If she sees a glorified image of a tall, thin model, she’ll feel the need to conform to it, and change her habits to make it happen—which is why numerous studies draw connections between the media’s portrayal of women’s bodies and an increasing number of young women with eating disorders.
By flooding girls’ minds with sexualized images of women, we’ve hurt their imaginations — and warped their desires.
That’s a tragedy, because a good imagination can be just as powerful in the opposite way. It’s a vehicle of change, and if we’re going to improve the status of women, we need to use it.
That means replacing images that glorify women’s sexuality with images that dignify their creativity and capabilities.
Change may never come as fully as it should, but public outcry and expectations can make a difference in policy and behavior, as the recent uproar over sexual harassment has demonstrated. Demanding changes in advertisements, films, and magazines that objectify women might pressure companies to rethink their portrayal of women.
Already, some voice have offered reason for hope in the advertising industry: Advertising agency Badger & Winters evaluates ads based on criteria that question the woman’s choice and sexualization in the ad and whether the image is realistic. It won’t approve an ad that doesn’t meet the criteria. In an interview with CNN, Madonna Badger, the founder of the company, said she’s optimistic that advertisers will portray women in more dignified ways in coming years.
As consumers, we play a role by choosing where we shop. By spending money with companies that objectify women in advertisements, we support industries that use women’s bodies to attract customers.
Weeding out bad images won’t just help women envision better futures for themselves; it’ll help all of us do so for each other.
“What makes us human, ironically, is that which is the least human thing about us: the grace given us to see the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of another, regardless of the corruption marring the human. This, in particular, is what the faculty of imagination allows us to understand. No person is merely the sum of his parts,” writes Brad Birzer, professor of history at Hillsdale College.
Shaping our imaginations rightly will revolutionize both men’s and women’s views of women, allowing us to see their humanity, beauty, dignity, and potential. With that kind of deep-rooted change, harassment and assault will find even less of a home in this world.
Nicole Ault is studying economics and journalism at Hillsdale College.