Surviving a sexualized culture: Melinda Tankard Reist talks to Peter Hastie

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls.

She is the author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and the recently released Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009).

Her advocacy for women and girls has included helping establish a supported accommodation and outreach service for women pregnant and without support, involvement in projects to address poverty, trafficking and sex slavery, and working to highlight and address the objectification of women and sexualization of girls in Australia and globally.

Melinda is a founder of Women’s Forum Australia, an independent, women’s think-tank and editor of WFA’s magazine-style research paper, Faking It, about girls and body image.

In recent months she has addressed thousands of people within Australia about her concerns and has been welcomed into many schools. Melinda’s commentary has been published and broadcast in Australia and overseas. Melinda appears frequently in the mainstream media in Australia, and was a guest panellist on the ABC’s Q&A (for the second time) in February.

Melinda has just launched the new grassroots campaigns movement, Collective Shout: for a sexploitation free world. Melinda is named in Who’s Who of Australian Women and the World Who’s Who of Women (forthcoming).

She and her husband, David, have four children and attend a church in Canberra.

Melinda, you have recently edited a book entitled, Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls. Can you tell us a little about your book?

Well, Getting Real is a collection of essays by advocates, academics, researchers, child psychologists and counsellors who are concerned about the effects of the pornification of culture on girls. The contributors are from diverse backgrounds, but all share a common concern for the welfare of girls. It is available from my website, which I encourage your readers to have a look at: They can find out about the book there and also get it from any good bookshop as well.

There is another interesting research paper in magazine format that you and a number of other people have produced called, Faking It. I am sure many parents of teenage daughters would like to get a copy of it. What led you to produce this magazine-style document?

Faking It is basically a magazine-style research paper unpacking the negative messages that girls and women get from women’s magazines. We had a lot of fun putting it together. On the front we have headlines like, ‘Hate Your Body: We Show You How’ and ‘The Stick Insect Diet’. My personal favourite is, ‘Of Course, You’re Not Hot’. Then on the back we have, ‘Make Believe’ instead of Maybelline. It’s just a bit of a spoof on women’s magazines.

It is set out like a magazine but it does have serious research content in it. This magazine has proved very popular with schools, who are ordering it from all over the country. It gives girls the critical media literacy skills that they need to discern what a good message is and what isn’t. We really hope the magazine will provide a service to girls and women everywhere so they can resist to resist the negative messages from popular culture. It is available from the Women’s Forum Australia website.

Can you tell us a little bit about Getting Real and why it has stirred such interest in the wider community?

Getting Real is an edited collection of chapters by child advocates, academics, researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists. I decided to compile the book because there are many diverse voices speaking out against what I call the ‘pornification’ of culture and its impact, particularly on girls. I thought it was time to capture those voices and to bring them together in the one book as a collective shout against the toxic society that we have created and in which some of us are trying to raise happy, healthy, resilient children. The book has struck a chord. I am delighted that it went into its second printing after only two months. I am also asked to speak to the media most days on the subject.

William Wilberforce, an English social activist, spent his whole life attempting to outlaw the slave trade. Do you think it’s worth your while as a woman to spend a good part of your life attempting to fight the growing sexualization of girls and the objectification of women?

I actually see this as an issue that is related to the slave trade. The objectification of women and sexualization of girls leads to them being traded and sold. We know that millions of women and girls around the world are traded and their bodies are sold, primarily into sexual slavery. What I am trying to do is to look at the attitudes that make this trade in the bodies of women and girls possible. If you say it’s okay to repackage little girls as sexually available, if you say that little girls are just little adults in small-size and have sexual interests and can give sexual come-ons to men, then of course you are going to be reinforcing an attitude which enables them to be sold in the global slave trade. I see them as one and the same really. This is an issue that goes to the heart of the dignity of women globally. I do believe we have a duty to take this issue up.

Feminists have made some significant contributions to this subject over the last 40 years or so. What particular insights or contributions have they made in terms of uncovering the problem?

I work very closely with feminist colleagues and they have certainly put this issue on the map. They have led the way in terms of research on the harm of pornography, prostitution and trafficking. Their scholarship is quite solid on this issue. I have been working around the world with women who are fighting the sexualization of girls in their own countries. The strength of that is that while women can come from very different backgrounds, many of us are agreed on this particular issue and the need to address it. It was a feminist press who published this book and my second book as well.

To what extent do you think this process of the sexualization and objectification of women is being run by commercial interests, consumerism, or the sex industry? What are the forces behind it?

It is all of the above, Peter. Advertisers and marketers always need new targets and new markets. Today they are re-modelling and re-packaging little girls in ways that were once only appropriate for adult women. We are seeing this in advertising catalogues and in billboards. Two things are happening here. First, children are being targeted to purchase and to buy into a consumerist culture in adult ways, but, second, they are also being targeted in the way that they are being used to sell products. Little girls are posed and stylised in the ways normally associated with adult women. This is forcing adult sexual concepts onto children at younger and younger ages, which, of course, is very dangerous and very harmful. It is adultifying little girls and treating them as sexy little women.

How should a woman see herself if she is going to resist this kind of cultural pressure?

Women need to say that they are not going to buy into this. We are worth more than this and we are not going to buy into a culture which only values us for our body parts. We are more than just the physical sum of our bodies. I am part of a new movement which is empowering women to resist this sexualizing trend, to make complaints, and to use our spending power in ethically wise ways. It is good to be concerned about the natural environment, but I am really concerned about the moral environment in which we live, the toxic culture that is invading the minds of girls and boys and giving boys distorted and delusional pictures of women.

Women need to rise up and speak out. Marketers, advertisers and corporations know that women make the bulk of the spending decisions in the family. Women actually have a lot of power. I have seen products and services removed as a result of one complaint. I could give you many examples where one complaint has seen products removed and billboards taken down and advertising campaigns that were denigrating women stopped. I suppose one of the big messages I want to convey is that women do have power. The standard you walk past is the standard you set. If we don’t complain, then we are allowing that standard to be set. We are saying that that standard is fine for our children, our children’s friends and our friend’s children. I believe we have a duty as women to rise up and stand up against that.

Do you have any particular products in mind? You mentioned one or two.

Yes, I do. I can give you an example where a colleague of mine made a complaint. She went to a family bowling centre where families were invited to go and bowl together. The bowling centre had pornographic music video clips playing there where her children, all under the age of 6, were bowling. She made a complaint and the owner of that bowling chain said, “You are right. It’s totally inappropriate”. So they removed those video clips and replaced them with more suitable ones.

Another, more graphic, example is actually a complaint I made. There is a game called Rape Lay which is a Japanese rape simulation game that boys can play. It even has a multiplayer function where the boys can participate in the simulated gang-rape of a mother and her two daughters aged 8 and 10. This is a game being played around the world. I made a complaint to our communications and media authority and said that this game was in breach of our Broadcasting Act and they agreed. You can no longer download that game in Australia. That was as a result of one complaint.

I am grateful for that, but why should we even have to complain? Who is even thinking of these games in the first place? Colleagues of mine in the U.S. have also complained about Rape Lay and they have received death threats. Some of them are under police protection. We should be grateful that we are in a country where we are free to make complaints and our lives won’t be threatened, because it is not the case for many of my colleagues in other countries.

Melinda, do we have any research-based evidence that the mental outlook of young girls has changed over the last ten years or so?

Yes, we do. The objectification of women and sexualization of girls contributes to a number of the most common mental health problems suffered by them such as eating disorders, self-harm, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. 1 in 100 girls in Australia is anorexic, 1 in 5 is bulimic. There are lots of girls who are eating, purging and throwing up. The official statistics say about 1 in 10 are bulimic, but experts in this field claim it is more likely 1 in 5 because it is just so under-reported.

It is a fact that 1 in 4 adolescent girls in Australia wants to have plastic surgery. They don’t like themselves very much. They are obsessed about their bodies; they are obsessed about their looks. They are spending a lot of time trying to perfect their body image. One of the tragedies about this is that many of them are aspiring to be like the digitally enhanced airbrushed images of women who simply don’t exist in real life. I spoke to a model recently who said that she doesn’t recognize herself in the photos that are taken of her when she sees them in the magazines.

So, the statistics are deeply disturbing. We know that eight year old girls are being hospitalised here in Sydney with eating disorders. Those sorts of things were not common a few years ago, but they are growing trend now. Even very little girls are conscious of their looks. They want to look ‘hot’ and sexy. They are being trained by western culture to present a prostitute-like version of themselves to the world. They are considered to be valid participants in this public culture of sex, and that has to be bad for their mental health. It is a harmful imposition on their childhood to have to even think about, “Am I hot enough? Am I sexy enough? Do I have the right moves? Is my makeup right?” They are worrying about their legs and tummies at an age where they should just be able to have fun and enjoy themselves.

Why do women think they have to flaunt their own sexuality to discover their true feminine selves?

Freedom has been distorted. Freedom for girls now has come to mean being publically sexual, to be what I call ‘service stations’ or ‘pleasure delivery centres’ for boys. There is very little concern here about real intimacy and connection. It is all about their ability to please boys. We see it during schoolies week, where this is the role that girls are expected to play. Girls have got the message that if they want to be seen as mature, free and liberated, they should wrap their legs around a pole and expose their bodies in public to please boys. What a tragedy and a distortion of the original message of women’s dignity and freedom!

What I am trying to do with this book, Getting Real, is to say, “Girls, you are worth so much more than that”. True freedom and being a real woman really should not be about those things. Those things actually reduce you to just a sexual object. Women’s worth and true value is so much more than that. The best chapter on this in my book is by Clive Hamilton. He says that the radical counter-cultural position is to resist all of that. That has almost become the conservative position, if you like. The radical position now is to say, “I am not going to buy into that as a young girl. I am going to resist premature sexual activity and I am not going to be reduced to that”. That is a radical and counter-cultural position to take. And this is the case we put strongly in Getting Real.

Melinda, apart from the degrading effects of this sexualization of young girls and women, do you have any deeper philosophical or spiritual concerns that are motivating you to speak out?

Yes, I think that sexualizing girls and objectifying women definitely has a spiritual element. Girls talk to me about feeling dead inside. They talk about feeling like their soul has died. They know they are being used and they know that they are being abused. They talk to me about cold, soulless hook-ups with boys. This promotes callous, sexual attitudes towards women and girls, and this affects them at the core of their being, at a very deep and spiritual level. There is definitely a spiritual vacuum in their lives and they are expected to fill that with buying things, grooming, cosmetics, makeup, hair-styling and so on. However, these things are not going to fill the spiritual void in their lives.

Over the last couple of years, especially with some of Australia’s sports’ personalities, we have seen a rise in what is called ‘sexting’. You have said that increasingly young boys and girls are being stalked through the use of sexting. How is this happening and is sexting harmful to a young person’s development?

For those of your readers who don’t know what sexting is, it involves the sending and transmitting of sexually explicit images of yourself to another person. This is having terrible consequences because often young people don’t think of the future implications of such behaviour. Their brains are still developing.

More and more young people are engaging in this practice. Maggie Hamilton, author of What’s Happening to our Girls? and also a contributor to my book, Getting Real, has described 13 year old girls in Tasmania sending explicit photos of themselves to boys. The tragedy is that often these girls don’t realize where their photo might end up. Some girls have even taken their lives when they have realized that one naked photo which they have sent to a boy has ended up not only with all of his mates, but also with boys around the world, not just through mobile phone transmission but also through social networking sites, such as Facebook. Some girls are discovering too late that once they post these images, there is a permanent record there and it is very hard for them to get them back. Some employers later ‘google’ the girl’s name if she has applied for a job and, lo and behold, they are not sure if this is the girl they want to be employing. They are not getting the message about how dangerous it is for them.

What a sad thing that younger and younger girls think that they need to pose in these ways to get male attention. Many are unaware of the dangers of doing this on-line. They little realize that sex predators—men posing as boys—get into these social networking sites and chat rooms. Our young people need to be educated about these dangers, again because it is primarily girls who are threatened and it is girls whose lives are at risk. Sexting is just part of the enmeshing of sex industry messages in the culture. We are seeing this at every level now and little girls are getting the message that this is what they have to do to be acceptable and to get attention. It’s a rip-off message for our girls who are so precious.

You have claimed that pornographic material has not only become pervasive in the public space of culture, but it is also beginning to penetrate into the world of teenagers and young children. Can you give us some sense of the dimensions of the problem?

Yes, I can. Adult sexual concepts have seeped into the girl and boy world and this is happening at younger and younger ages. I can give you a range of examples. There are games based on sexual themes for children. There are music CDs for children that contain very sexual lyrics on them. There’s a song by Lily Allen, which focuses on explicit sexual activity. I hear little girls singing it.

We know that Hugh Hefner, who invented Playboy, has said that he doesn’t mind if babies hold up Playboy Bunny rattles. Someone told me recently that they were shopping for party gear for their 5 year old daughter and there was the Playboy logo on fairy wings. You have got to hand it to Playboy, they are clever. It’s not just about the magazine anymore; Playboy has been able to get its logo onto girls’ pencil cases, doona covers, pillow cases, and a lot of girls when you talk to them about Playboy they say, “Oh, the rabbit, it’s so cute”. They don’t realize that they are wearing the brands of the global sex industry led by an 83 year old man in silk pyjamas who lives in a mansion surrounded by young blondes with fake breasts. Most girls have no idea of the history of the Playboy empire and they think it’s just about cute bunny ears. Cotton On has sexual slogans on T-shirts and jumpsuits and babies. I want to ask, “Why is it acceptable to impose adult sexual concepts on to children?”

Do you have any idea as to the extent to which pornography is actually acting as a handbook for sex for both girls and boys at the moment?

We know that most young people have been exposed to pornography on average by the age of 15. The main problem with pornography is that it provides a delusional set of myths to boys about girl’s sexuality and what girls are there for. It certainly contributes to violence against women and girls. There is a distinctive connection there. What crime investigators are noticing in some of the more recent sex-crimes committed by younger boys against girls is that the boys are often following certain scripts of pornography. Girls are often rounded up and raped by a gang. I have been talking to sexual assault counsellors who have been telling me that the latest phenomenon they have been seeing is 12 and 13 year old girls coming in for help who have been assaulted by groups of boys. Boys are learning these acts from pornography. Even little boys now are going to school and asking little girls for sexual favours. It is becoming more common behaviour among children.

Often boys are using pornography as a sex education handbook which is an absolute disaster for girls. Boys have said things like, “Pornography lodges itself into your brain like a parasite”. One teen said that, “pornography conditioned in me appetites that I didn’t previously have”. Boys are being corrupted too because they can no longer see girls as whole women deserving of respect. It also affects their friendships. They don’t know how to relate to girls as friends anymore and everything is overlaid with overt-sexualised messaging.

One of the other concerns I have about pornography is the way that it is now mainstreamed into our society. You no longer have to go to the back blocks of Canberra’s sex industry to get porn. You just need to walk into my local corner store, or a 7 Eleven or a McDonald’s fuel zone. And I am not just talking about your average pornography. You can also find (and I have) pornography that promotes sex with little girls, rape and incest. A colleague of mine, Julie Gale from Kids Free 2B Kids, discovered 30 titles in three Melbourne stores that were all illegal and no one had done anything about it. They depict girls as adult women. The girl may be technically 18 but she is posed and stylised with all the signs of childhood. She is surrounded by soft toys, she has got braces, pigtails, is wearing a school uniform and she is begging for sex with an older man. This sort of pornography creates a dangerous environment for children because it suggests that this is what little girls want. I want to ask, “Who allowed that and why haven’t our regulatory bodies and police done something about it?“ We have a serious problem in this country with a lack of compliance to classification laws by porn distributors and a lack of enforcement by police.

We don’t have to allow this state of affairs to continue. We need to ask, “What is this doing in the corner store at my child’s eye level?” I am part of a campaign to get porn out of the corner store. You can go into some McDonald’s restaurants, which are co-branded with Fuelzone, and get your fries right next to pornography which promotes rape, incest and child sex. Last year we raised this issue directly with petrol stations. Julie Gale forwarded them images from the pornography they were stocking and asked: “Are these images consistent with your global image? Is this consistent with your brand?” BP, Shell and Mobil all said “No”, and pulled this category of pornography. So we had an effect there; but we also want 7- Eleven and McDonald’s to do the same. We just think it’s wrong to give any space to pornography in the public domain.

Isn’t it a little strange that McDonald’s makes the claim that it is family-friendly when it is sponsoring this sort of material?

Yes, and we demand more from McDonald’s. We have not had a good answer yet as to why they think that it’s okay. What is Ronald McDonald doing, reading porn magazines? That is my question.

You have agreed with Germaine Greer’s comment that ‘bad girl’ culture is perfectly reflected in the brutal layout of women’s magazines or girl’s magazines. How large are the readerships of these magazines and what sort of influence do they have on the rising generation of young women?

The readerships are massive and growing. I am especially concerned with the very limited stereotypical views about women that are portrayed in these magazines. Again you see this ‘bad gir’’ culture. You see girl celebrities who are out of control. What message does this send to girls? Well, we have a fair idea because we know from a survey in the UK that 63% of girls said that their preferred career choice was to be a celebrity posing nude or semi-nude, or to be lap dancers and strippers. This is what they wanted to do when they grew up. The way that celebrities are depicted in these magazines suggests that this is somehow worthy of attention. Paris Hilton has done nothing good in the world and yet she is held up for girls as a role model to which they should aspire.

Maybe 30 or 40 years ago many girls aspired to be nurses and teachers. What happened?

I hate to tell you this, but nurses and teachers are down at the bottom of the list today. I know that teachers may be disturbed to hear that they are at the bottom of the list. The UK survey reveals that girls don’t want to be teachers and nurses; they want to be lap-dancers, nude models and pole dancers. I find this deeply disturbing.

Girlfriend is a lifestyle bible for girls and yet it depicts very demeaning messages to girls. In their magazines they have mobile phone wall papers for girls to decorate their phones with that say things like, “I’m a good girl trapped in the body of a slut” or, “Drunk and gorgeous (D&G)”. However, it is not gorgeous to be drunk. Girls are sexually assaulted when they are drunk and terrible things happen to them as a result of drink-spiking and binge-drinking. Again, we see this type of behaviour being played out at schoolies’ week each year, where girls are taken advantage of and find themselves unintentionally pregnant or having acquired an STD.

Dolly magazine, which is for even younger readers aged between10 to 13, had a feature which depicted three sexual acts that a boyfriend might encourage a girl to perform. Now, bearing in mind the ages of the readership of Dolly, you would have thought that the editors might have said, “Call the police; tell your mother; get out of this relationship; run for the hills, and get away from this”. Instead, what Dolly did was give a clinical description of each sexual act and told girls how to do it. Where is the information about it being a crime? These are very young girls. Yet the magazines that they look to for help and guidance are training them in how to be service stations for boys. As far as Dolly is concerned, that is their role in life; to act like little prostitutes, although most are unpaid in providing these sexual favours for boys. I believe these magazines have acted in socially irresponsible ways and should take a lot of the blame for the damage that is being inflicted on girls.

Girlfriend states that it has a ‘love your body’ policy. They say they want girls to love themselves as they are and to respect their bodies. However, they also admit that they photo-shop the images of every woman in their magazine, including their own staff. So, how can they say, “Girls, we want you to love and respect yourselves”, and yet admit that they digitally alter the images in their magazines? You can’t have it both ways; it’s total hypocrisy. Girls have a right to know that.

Is there any consistent value system that is underlying these particular magazines? For example, is there a driving philosophy behind a magazine like Cosmopolitan?

The driving philosophy seems to be that women should have at least as many sexual exploits as men. I remember one quote from Cosmopolitan that said something like, “You cannot consider yourself a mature woman and have a single bed”. The magazines promote the philosophy that girls should behave in all sorts of outrageous ways and that this is somehow good for them. However, we know that it is not good for them, that it is demeaning, and that it makes them feel bad and hate themselves.

Again, they seem to portray a one dimensional view of women. What about a few stories of women who are doing some amazing things in this world? Instead of all the pictures of women posing and not doing very much, getting dream jobs, the dream house and maybe the dream man, how about some stories on women who are changing the world? For instance, what about stories on people like Dr Catherine Hamlin, who I had the privilege to meet recently, and her work in the fistula hospital in Africa? What about young girls who work in slums and provide medical care and education to the poorest of the poor? These are the kind of role models that would be more helpful to girls rather than out-of-control celebrities. Girls are far more significant than those limited, homogenized messages suggest about their place in the world.

Journalists like to remind us of their professional code of ethics. Do journalists do enough to expose the exploitation of women today by the sex industry?

I know a number of people who teach journalism and I know journalism students who have gone through their schools. Some of those students have told me about how they have felt mistreated because they have held a different view on some of these issues. So, I don’t think we are producing whole, well-rounded journalists. I think that those who have an alternative perspective are usually marginalized in journalism. I also know some who actually keep their views a complete secret because they feel that they will be discriminated against in the workplace.

Of course, I am not saying that they should use journalism as a platform for their own views. However, we at least want to see an attempt at impartiality in terms of the presentation of news and features. Opinion pieces are different; there you can express your views. The problem that we face today is that opinion is frequently making its way into so-called ‘news stories’. When it comes to writers for girls’ magazines, they should be presenting a range of girls and not this one idealized body type. Even the magazine, Frankie, is in trouble at the moment, and Frankie has been a bit of an alternative magazine for girls. They have just had an image of a girl who looks like she is dying of anorexia—she is just so thin and she has got all the signs of an eating disorder. Frankie has received a lot of complaints for that, particularly from the mothers of girls with eating disorders who referred their daughters to Frankie because the hoped their daughters would get an alternative. Now the magazine has let them down.

So, it is really hard to get alternative views out there for girls, however there are some that are doing it. There is a magazine called Bella that comes out of Queensland and it provides alternatives for girls, and there is also Indigo Girl and Real that come out of Melbourne. Parents just need to shop around a little bit and find alternatives and not buy into poor quality ones, including the magazines for even younger girls at 6, 7, 8 and 9, like Total Girl, which is based on celebrity, gossip and grooming. One issue of Total Girl was a ‘cute crush’ issue for little girls and some of the scenarios for little girls were little girls in relationships having crushes on much older boys and men. This is just prepping girls for sexual advances from men. It is not protecting them at all.

What are some of the research findings at the moment about the impact of women reading women’s magazines over the longer term? Do they tend to see themselves in a different way?

The research indicates that readers of these magazines tend not to be happy with themselves. They feel bad about themselves and inadequate. They feel that they should immediately go on a diet and change their wardrobe. They feel that they can’t live up to this standard model of womanhood as depicted in women’s magazines. The research shows that women’s magazines are actually bad for women’s health. The point that gets missed here is that these women’s magazines rely on advertising revenue and therefore there is a vested interest in making women feel bad about themselves. If they made women feel good, then they wouldn’t need the products. Obviously, magazines stand to lose a lot of revenue if they change their approach to women.

Do we have any research that indicates that the reading of these magazines leads to earlier sexual encounters on the part of women?

In Faking It, which is about the female image in women’s magazines published by Women’s Forum Australia, we did look into that question. The research suggests that these magazines contributed to girls’ thinking that they need to be sexually active earlier. There is very little content in these magazines that empowers and equips girls to make different decisions about how they want to be sexually. We know that some girls want to delay their first sexual encounter, and in fact, research clearly shows that many first sexual encounters are marked by coercion, force and drunkenness. There was a recent study in the last year that showed that a third of girls experience unwanted sex. It is a sad thing that a girls’ first sexual experience should be something that is unwanted and pressured.

Unfortunately there is not enough alternative content in these magazines that celebrate girls who make different choices. You don’t see much of that and when you do it is almost like, “Check out this weird story about the girl who is still a virgin at 17”, or amazing headlines, “Guess what we found? Here’s a girl who does not want to live that way”. Yet girls have a right to know that that is a legitimate way to live.

So the sexualized message of the clothing, the music, the toys and the games is reinforced by the magazines which say, “Yes girls, this is what you are good for”. So, how is a girl supposed to live differently when everyone appears to be telling them, “This is what you are here for!”

It seems as though the magazines are creating a visual sense of beauty that consists of an airbrushed female body. Conversely, the Bible talks about beauty as being a quality of the soul. Do you have any comments?

We certainly are visual creatures, and I think it is possible to celebrate the beauty of the female form. It is a remarkable thing. However, celebrating the beauty of the female form is quite different to objectifying it and thinking of it only in a sexual context. There are so many aspects of being a woman that magazines do not celebrate. Their entire focus on womanhood seems to be around who a woman is sexually, the size of her breasts, the look of her face and her hair. However, there are other aspects of a woman’s being such as her character, artistic ability, creativity, intelligence as well as many other gifts they have to offer the world. Tragically those gifts are not honoured in the magazines or held up in the same way as her sexual prowess and sexual knowingness.

What advice would you give to women about the practical ways to resist the spirit of the age with respect to their own sexualization and objectification?

First, resist the culture, don’t buy into it. Don’t buy into it for your children’s sake. I am getting more teenage girls coming to me and saying, “How can I help my mother? My mother has got problems and my mother hates herself. My mother weighs herself on the scales fifty times a day. My mother limits my food intake and my mother makes me work out at the gym obsessively“.

Mothers need to know, and the research validates this, that girls take their cues from their mother. If the mother doesn’t like herself very much, then the girl won’t either. In fact, to give you an example, recently a girl told me that her mother bought her an end-of-year ball dress which was a size 10 and the girl is a size 14. The mother said, “You will get into this by the end of the year”. So, I feel like we have missed a generation of mothers with this message. We are getting it out to the girls, but it seems as though their mothers are struggling. I want to say to mothers, “Don’t buy into the culture; don’t get the Botox; don’t get the breast implants and recognize your own value and worth. If you say damaging things about how you feel about yourself and your attitude towards food, then your daughter will be picking that up”. Mothers need to be very careful about that. That’s my advice at a personal level.

However, I think women should act politically as well. Go into a clothing store and say, “I am not going to buy from your store because you are only providing children with a very limited clothing range with sexual slogans. I can’t find clothes that work for my daughter in your store, and I am going to tell all my friends about it too”.

Corporations certainly know the power of women’s networks and word of mouth. They know that for every complaint they receive there are 500 people who wanted to complain but didn’t. Make complaints, go into the video store and say, “I don’t like the fact that your porn videos are placed besides the children’s section or placed beside the top 10 where children are going to be looking”. There are so many ways that we can complain. Go into the service station and say, “I am not going to buy my petrol from your service station because I am confronted every time I come in here with porn magazines at children’s eye level. That is an imposition on me and an imposition on my child. I am going to go to another service station”.

The final course of action is to call upon our regulatory bodies and state and federal governments to do more. Self-regulation hasn’t worked. It has failed dismally. The other approach to take with regulators is to point out the hypocrisy and double standards in public advertising. For instance, why is it wrong for a man to put up a pin-up image of a semi-naked or naked woman in his office space, but our advertisers and marketers are free to fill our public spaces with giant images of sexualized depictions of women and we have to put up with it? Since we all have to inhabit this space, it’s appropriate that we take up our democratic rights and say that we have to live here too. The research is on our side. We are not prudes, and we just want to have a healthy environment for our children and for ourselves.

So, take it up with your local MPs. Ask them what they are going to do to address this toxic culture in which we are trying to raise our children. Press them to explain how they are going to make the Advertising Standards Board work properly. Ask, “What are we going to do to make sure our Classification Board doesn’t allow illegal pornography promoting rape of children in our corner stores? What are our federal and state governments going to do to address these issues?” I think this should be as hot a topic as anything else in an election year. Tell your MPs that you are not going to vote for them unless they are going to do something positive about it.

Reproduced with kind permission from Australian Presbyterian, March 2010 (PDF).

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