SPARK: Taking Sexy Back

By Kyla Bender-Baird

Sexualization of girls is nothing short of an epidemic,” said Hunter College President Jennifer Raab at the SPARK Summit this past Friday in NYC. SPARK stands for “Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge.” SPARK was convened to challenge the sexualization of girls, which has a detrimental impact on girls’ self-esteem, body image, mental health, and sense of self-efficacy. One of the most disturbing effects that Raab pointed out is that self-improvement has been defined as changing one’s body rather than expanding one’s mind. For examples of just how out-of-control the sexualization of girls has become (and also how folks are pushing back), check out this video the Women’s Media Center produced for the Summit:

Combining the leadership of six organizations and 23 girl activists, the Summit brought together nearly 500 participants—with over 200 joining virtually through live webcast. As Jamia Wilson of the Women’s Media Center put it, we came together to “launch a movement to take sexy back because sexy is not just a look…it’s a feeling, an embodiment, and a powerful part of our whole selves.”

The big message of the day was the importance of media literacy and creating our own positive media. “You don’t have to be a passive observer in how you’re portrayed in the media,” said author, activist, and television commentator Amber Madison, our host for the day. We can demand a different story. As Yanique Richards, a girl activist from Howard University, shared that by coming together, we are more than a movement—we are a force.

Joining this force were seasoned activists such as Jean Kilbourne of Killing Us Softly fame; girl activists such as Shelby Knox, who apparently has been called the “new Gloria Steinem” (and oh yeah, Gloria herself was there); researchers and academic scientists who offered the latest (disturbing) statistics; and even a Hollywood celebrity! Geena Davis (hello sister amazon!) delivered the keynote address, talking about her own journey from an awkward, gangly teenager to strong, confident self-image through sports, a theme that continues in the roles she takes on. “I’d rather play baseball than be the girlfriend of someone playing baseball,” said Davis.

Unfortunately, as we know too well, portrayals of strong women and girls in the media are much less common than objectified images of female bodies. During lunch, seven scientists presented their research findings about the sexualization of girls in our culture on a panel called “Numbers Don’t Lie!” Here is a sample of what they shared:

  • Jennifer Stevens Aubrey from the University of Missouri-Columbia discovered the “normalcy of sexual scripts” in her analysis of female artists’ music videos. Over 90% of the videos she analyzed contained at least one measure of sexualization.
  • Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, also from the University of Missouri-Columbia, dissected the sexualization of violence against women in video games. She examined the effect of powerful women characters, such as Lara Croft whose defining feature is her sexuality, on players’ views of women as athletic and intelligent. Despite Crofts’ crafty strategy and unquestionable strength, players reported that after playing the game, they saw women as less athletic or intelligent rather than more. Behm-Morawtiz concluded that such female characters are not in fact empowering and that sexualization activates gender stereotypes.
  • Stacy Smith of SeeJane shared some newly crunched numbers, specially prepared for the SPARK Summit. In their analysis of speaking characters in 122 G, PG, and PG-13 rated movies released between 2006 and 2009, 29.2% of all speaking characters are women. The good news is this number increases when only looking at teens (ages 13-20). 44.2% of teen speaking characters are girls, leading Smith to conclude that equity is within reach for the teen demographic. The bad news is that there is less than a 5% difference between the sexualization of teen girls and adult women in popular cinema content.
  • Finally (and yes, I’ve saved perhaps the most disturbing for last), Rebecca Bigler and Sarah McKenney from the University of Texas, Austin reported that the rates of plastic surgery among teen girls (18 and younger) have increased. In 2002, around 4,000 girls got breast implants. Only one year later, that number was over 11,000!

Why is this research so important and what can we do about it? Throughout the Summit, speakers pointed to the 2007 APA findings that the sexualization of girls is connected to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression in women and girls. “These are public health problems,” said Kilbourne. Furthermore, the media is a delivery agent of cultural messages. As Davis stated in her keynote address, we often judge our value in society by how we are seen in the culture at large, especially in the media. Which is why we are standing up! Fortunately, the Summit provided many creative examples of young women and girls standing up to the media and the sexualization of our bodies:

  • Ingrid Hu Dahl shared how the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls helps young girls and women explore their identities and build the confidence to take up space in this world (and make some noise!). As Dahl pointed out, “music is a performance. [It] reminds you that gender is a performance. [Playing music allows you to explore] how to find new ways to perform your identities.” Dahl encouraged everyone to shout out “I rock” at least once during the Summit.
  • Asha Camille Jennings talked about standing up to Nelly and refusing to choose which battle she wanted to fight. Nelly was originally scheduled to come to Spelman College as part of a bone marrow drive. However, when his video “Tip Drill” came out with blatant sexual objectification, the student body protested. At first, Jennings felt pulled between two causes: fighting the sexualization of women in music videos or collecting bone marrow, an issue that has a special impact on African American communities. With the guidance of a sharp professor, Jennings realized that she didn’t have to choose. Both issues impacted her and her community. She therefore invited Nelly to come to campus with his bone marrow drive and to learn from the campus community how his video impacts young girls. Nelly decided to bypass the campus altogether.
  • Lexi St. John, who co-founded an environmental justice non-profit with her twin sister, is creating her own alternative media. Tired of seeing her high school peers bombarded with sexualized images of themselves in the media, St. John is writing a screenplay for Disney with smart, funny, strong girls leading the story.

My favorite question of the day—and the one that basically sums up the thrust of the SPARK Summit—came at the end of the “Girl Activists Speak Out” panel. An audience member asked, “How can we be both sex positive and critical of sexualization?” The girls on the panel had this one in the bag! “Being sex positive requires one be critical of sexualization because sexualization takes away the choices central to sex positivity,” said Melissa Campbell who coordinated an About-Face street theater protest against American ApparelCarmen Rios of The Line Campaign followed up by pointing out that sex is about being a person with feelings and a mind and a heart. It is up to us to distinguish between what is sexy and what is not sexy, pointed out St. John. For instance, having an opinion? Sexy!

These young women are the right now of social change,” concluded Shelby Knox. I second that!

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