(For an exciting update as of 1/16/2013, be sure to read to the end of this post!)
Every week, Utah-based sports radio station ESPN 700 takes a break from sports commentary to host a forum for objectifying, degrading, insulting and marginalizing women called “Hot or Not Wednesday.” This happens on air, on Facebook and on their website. Three weeks ago, after receiving a sincere and eloquent e-mail from one of our fans (the lovely Laura Henriksen), we decided to voice our own opinion that their weekly poll is sooooo not hot, in different terms.
It turns out, many of these sports fans don’t like to have their opinions on objectification challenged by hordes of smart, beautiful ladies. On a photo of the stunning actress Paula Patton, amid dozens of comments debating whether or not she looks like The Rock’s younger sister and the sexuality of men who disagree with her hotness, we left this comment, which received 160 “likes” in the next couple of hours:
Hi ESPN 700, we’re also based in Utah and we are fully in support of good sports programming and commentary. What we don’t love is your “hot or not” series. Beauty Redefined works to fight the view of women as objects (from men’s perspective and women’s own perspectives), and helps women to fight negative body image and shame so they can move on to bigger and better things like health, happiness and contributing to the world. So…campaigns like yours about whether amazingly beautiful, scantily-clad celebrities and models are “hot” is doing a huge disservice to real life girls and women who see those posts, the comments, and the men in their lives who participate in it. Further, it is alienating your current and potential female fans (like us). We got this e-mail from one of our fans and wanted to share it: “ESPN 700, a Sandy, UT-based sports radio station posts pictures regularly and asks their facebook followers to vote on the woman’s attractiveness. A nice man in my life voted on the picture by “liking” it and thereby all his friends and family were confronted with the image. He’s in his late twenties, married, educated and generally not the sort that would consciously demean a woman in real life. It got me to thinking about how many of the respectful, intelligent men in our lives are rating women by their looks first and everything else second? Worse, how many of them think it’s harmless? I suggest that you encourage your readership to post on ESPN 700’s photos with quotes that remind them that women are not objects. I believe this would make many of the “nice guys” realize that this isn’t harmless fun.” We hope you’ll reconsider the “hot or not” tradition, or that your fans – who are likely great guys who don’t mean to purposely degrade the women in their lives – will reconsider participating in it. Thank you!
Our fans left dozens of subsequent comments supporting this sentiment, and a few of ESPN 700’s own fans even chimed in with some much-welcomed self-awareness and support of our fight against objectification of women in general. Among sooo many insightful, powerful opinions, a guy named Adam said, “The harm that comes from this that people are talking about is that men may start to value women based only on their looks, and that women will base their own value on that same attribute; that it is their physical appearance that determines whether or not they are worth the consideration of others. Since we can’t sit down and have conversations with these people to see what they look like (sans Photoshop) and see them for their other qualities and beauties, maybe we should stop spending our time passing judgment on these women (and I might argue that the judgment is on all women), not only in this small weekly post, but in other venues as well. If this focus on the physical causes a woman to only want to be an object to be had, and a man to see the women around him as faulty, then the harm of which we speak has already come to fruition.” Love it.
Unfortunately, several more comments illustrated the hateful, degrading attitudes that are naturally cultivated by any “hot or not” poll targeted at either men or women: you know, the regular “you must be on your periods,” “go back to your embroidery,” “you must all be ugly fat chicks” — the most mundane, predictable insults you could imagine being hurled at women who oppose sexism.
This happened two weeks in a row, though we decided to take a much smaller role in the Week Two installment featuring a more fully-clothed Lori Laughlin, but also featuring the same awful, losing-faith-in-humanity type of comments on her looks. This week (Jan. 18), the station thought it would be fun to feature Ricki Lake, since “no one would want to objectify her.” They also mentioned the name of our organization at least 100 times on the air, saying they have “redefined beauty” by choosing this “big-boned,” “lumptuous – not voluptuous” woman since we were all “so intimidated by beautiful women.” They also repeatedly mentioned they hadn’t heard from us, so naturally, we decided to call in. Lexie was told she’d be on the air at 3:30. At that time, the show hosts (after asking every caller what they thought of Ricki Lake’s looks) said a woman from Beauty Redefined was on line 2, but there was no way they were going to let her on the air and we all need to “get a life.” The person who answered the phone told Lexie they weren’t going to let her on after all, since this has “nothing to do with sports.” If they don’t understand the irony in that excuse, then things are worse that we even thought.
Our wonderful fans weren’t so pumped about that angry on-air rejection, despite the hosts continuing to talk about us and misconstrue our message, and have left hundreds of comments on our Facebook page and ESPN’s in the last few hours. It is absolutely fantastic that people are talking about this stuff! A couple of network TV stations here in Salt Lake City have already contacted us to potentially air the story, and we’d love to be able to speak our side rather than be misrepresented as angry, beauty-hating, jealous women. With or without further media coverage, we know some good has definitely been done here. The targeted actresses have gone from the nearly nude Hilary Swank to the fully clothed Lori Laughlin in a shockingly short amount of time. And even if they never stop doing the poll, there are definitely fans of their page who will think twice before participating in it. We realize it’s often unlikely that we can make major changes in media, but we can most definitely spark changes in real people’s minds and behaviors.
We’ve tackled this local example of objectification in a small way, and we realize most media will never change its degrading, woman-dismissing ways, but we can change what we’re exposed to, how we view the world, how we view ourselves and how we treat others. This work isn’t about shutting down all the media that hurts us – that’s a losing battle, thanks to the billions of dollars made off women’s anxiety about their bodies. But good men and good women can have an infinitely positive influence by questioning crap like this “hot or not” poll that is presented as innocent and harmless, but in all reality just promotes harmful attitudes toward women and body hatred in the women exposed to it. Harmful attitudes that damage relationships between men and women, parents and children, and women to themselves. Body hatred, or disgust with one’s own appearance -regardless of what that person looks like – is a major contributor to some of the most pressing mental and physical health issues of our day, from obesity and disordered eating to anxiety and depression.
“Hot or Not” and Viewing Women as Objects: So What?
Our work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze, and public polls encouraging the view of women as objects to be judged encourage that view. As psychological researchers Fredrickson & Roberts describe it, self-objectification is manifested as “the tendency to perceive one’s body according to externally perceivable traits (how it appears) instead of internal traits (what it can do).” Research shows young girls and women “self-objectify” when they think of themselves mostly or exclusively in sexual terms and when they equate their “sexiness” with a narrow idea of physical attractiveness (generally achieved through extremes like disordered eating and cosmetic surgery). And what do you know? Young women experience appearance-related anxiety the majority of the time, especially after viewing media images of sexualized female bodies or language so normalized today.
Dozens of studies show people suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape*.
- Research tells us girls and women who learn from media to pay extra attention to the way they look have fewer mental resources available in their brains for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning and athletic performance.
- Hospitalizations for children with eating disorders went up 100 percent in the last decade – 92% of those being little girls.
- Further, cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade to reach $12 billion in 2010, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on females – some younger than 18. No wonder that is the case when even the “mildest” of entertainment represents females of any age as sexual objects made up of digitally and surgically enhanced parts, and even they, are often publicly discussed as being not hot enough.
- Females as young as 12 years old place greater emphasis on their body’s appearance than on its competence and girls and women self-objectify more than boys and men do. Much research has documented losses in self-esteem for girls the moment they reach adolescence, and perceived physical attractiveness is closely tied to self-esteem.
- Females with a more objectified view of their bodies have diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness.
In terms of sexually objectifying media, studies show men and women who viewed just six hours of pornography (one hour each week for six weeks) reported significantly reduced satisfaction with their present relationship, both with their partner’s sexuality and appearance. Participants also reported being faithful to their partner was less important by study’s end and their view of sex without emotional involvement rose in favor (Bryant & Zillman, 1988). In 2003, the top 1,600 U.S. divorce attorneys submitted data showing 62% of the divorces they handled claimed the Internet as a major cause of divorce and 56% of those went further to claim “one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” Keep in mind the current no-fault divorce statute in place makes it advantageous for attorneys to entirely ignore and never record the causes of divorce, which means this 62% statistic is shocking and most likely drastically higher. To clarify, we’re not asserting that the photos posted by ESPN 700 in the last 3 weeks were pornographic, but we are asserting that the act of viewing sexually objectifying media (or media that reduces a woman’s sexuality and worth to her appearance) like the “hot or not” poll, which are frequently discussed in terms of whether or not the men would sleep with her – is harmful to men, women and their relationships with each other.
Alleviating the influence of objectification is a crucial fight for both males and females, and there are countless ways to start. We generally address females, but the ESPN controversy offers us a perfect opportunity to engage more men and boys in strategies to redefine beauty for themselves and the girls and women they’ll love and associate with their entire lives. We are so grateful to the males who already stand with us in this battle against objectified appearance-obsessed ideals that limit and marginalize females. Here are several ways to continue this battle:
Be a Positive Example: Be especially cautious when making comments about girls’ and womens’ appearance, even if they are celebrities in magazines or on the big screen. Even if you say something you think is positive about a woman, like “She is so hot!” it is likely that the girls and women in your life will automatically make judgments against themselves based on what you said. Even if they don’t tell you, most girls and women care very much about the way the men in their lives treat, view and speak about other women. Your example can have a profound effect for good or bad. When girls and women see or hear your negative comments about other women’s bodies, especially those bodies commonly considered to be attractive like celebrities or models (like, for example, in a “hot or not” poll on Facebook), those comments may have a lasting effect that could contribute to body hatred and distorted body image so common among females today.
Check Your Vision: Be conscious of the vast amount of media we consume each day, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. In fact, the average American spends about 7.5 hours each day with at least one form of media, and is exposed to about 3,600 advertisements each day, from every angle. As you go through your day, pay attention to what you see and what messages go against what you know be true about yourself and others you love. Recognize that those images far outnumber the women we see in real life, which creates a distorted idea of what women do (and should) look like, thanks to unavoidable Photoshopping, profit-driven ideals of extreme thinness and surgically enhanced curves.
Unreal Ideals: Remember it is reasonable to assume no image we ever see of a woman in media has gone un-manipulated. As early as 1991, a media industry insider referred to the digital alteration of women as a “retouching epidemic.” And today magazine editors refer to airbrushing as an industry standard. Plus, vertical film stretching to make women appear taller and thinner is a common technique, as are filtered lenses on video cameras and soft lighting, which do away with wrinkles, pores, and other so-called “blemishes” for women on TV and in movies. The next time you start comparing the females in your life to those you see in media, remember that even the beauty ideals don’t actually fit the ideals they are supposed to represent.
Go on a Media Fast: Choose a day, a week, a month, or longer to steer clear of as much media as you can. That way, you can see how your life is different without all those messages and images, and when you return to viewing and reading popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you and those you love and those that are unrealistic. One male college student in Utah went on a “media fast” for three months, and found that one unexpected side effect was that he found the real women in his life more attractive throughout that time, and continued to find them more beautiful once the fast was over.
Turn Away From Harmful Images: The girls and women you know and love are hopefully trying hard to remember that the women they see in media are digitally manipulated to appear “perfect,” even though they don’t really look that way. When you put those types of pictures in your locker or subscribe to magazines that depict women in unrealistic and degrading ways, the females in your life may then believe those are the types of women you value most. Turning away from media images that hurt women (and men) is a perfect way to help the females in your life understand what you really value in women – real women you see face to face.
Object to Objectification: Pay attention to media that is objectifying to women, which means it shows women and girls as just PARTS of themselves. That happens when the camera pans up and down their bodies, or zooms in on certain body parts. This also takes place when magazines or movies and TV talk about women’s bodies in ways that degrade them and turn them into just body parts instead of thinking, feeling humans. Boys and men exposed to sexually objectifying messages (which are inescapable in today’s media landscape), learn to primarily view and value females for their outward appearance and actually endorse objectifying images in the future. Turn away from objectifying media – it is harmful for you and for the females you love.
Show Them What You Value: Most girls and women claim they’re trying to achieve these beauty ideals in an attempt to become more desirable and attractive to men. If the things they are trying so hard to obtain are not actually all you value in a woman, be sure to make that known by speaking about women in positive ways and referencing their characters, personalities and talents as things you admire and seek in girls and women you want in your life. Choose to compliment the girls and women in your life for those things, too. The compliments that stick with you for a lifetime are those that acknowledge your valuable qualities, like a good attitude, selflessness, talents, and honesty.
Be Critical of Media, Not Yourself or Women: While the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, we are also the only industrialized country in the world without some form of media literacy in public school curriculum. We need to feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a movie, train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you and those you love!
- Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media? Do you believe the females in your life would feel better or worse about themselves after viewing or hearing this media?
- Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages)
- Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video game or website you are viewing? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes of your media of choice)
- Is the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time? Who are those messages promoting impossible ideals usually speaking to?
- How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? Do they look like the females in your life?
Get Back to Reality: Since we’ll see more images of women in one week of media viewing than we’ll probably ever see face to face, it’s important to give ourselves a reality check! When we look eye to eye with the women we know and love, we can remind ourselves what real women and real beauty look like. This real definition of beauty is so much more than just looks! It is your best girl friend’s basketball skills, your sister’s hard work on her English paper, the lines on your mom’s face from years of beautiful smiles and laughter, and so much more.
Take Media Into Your Own Hands: Post links or start discussions on blogs and social networking sites to continuously spark conversation about dangerous ideals (like the thin ideal, surgical enhancement, white ideals, etc.) and to bring to light those who profit from our belief in those ideals. And when thinking about your future college studies and/or present career, consider going into journalism, advertising or media production so YOU can produce messages that uplift rather than degrade. Since it’s rare to see an ad that does anything positive for female body image, we launched a campaign to fund billboards promoting healthy body image in 2011-’12. We’d love to do it again! If you can help, please do!
Be an Advocate: If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise women is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for truth and uplifting messages. When you come across a company’s advertising that fuels female insecurity or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. Join us on Facebook for regular links to share and continue this conversation! If you’d like to go a step further, write to and/or call your local cable company, TV station, newspaper and any other media outlet perpetuating harmful messages. Get the word out that the media message you have seen is inappropriate and dangerous and threaten to boycott if it is not removed. If your complaints are not heard, do NOT patronize those institutions and suggest the same to your loved ones.
Redefining Healthy: Getting back to reality involves figuring out what “health” really means – and it’s not what media shows us. For-profit media like women’s fitness magazines or TV shows would have us believe health and fitness are all about what women look like, and any doctor can tell us that simply isn’t true. If you know a girl or woman who believes her health and fitness depend on what she looks like, encourage her to talk to a doctor, nutritionist or other health specialist to figure out what healthy really means for her individually. She can then work with them to set healthy goals for herself that aren’t based off profit-driven beauty ideals.
The Power of Media Makers: Media decision-makers like editors, producers, writers, directors, and web developers can and should disrupt the steady stream of idealized bodies with positive representations of more normative shapes and sizes, with positive dialogue or editorials regarding those images that does not focus solely on appearance.
Exciting Update (1/16/2013): We are happy to announce that ESPN700’s long-running tradition of objectifying and degrading women every Wednesday with “Hot or Not” has NOT happened since Oct. 17, 2012! This post originally ran in January 2012, and it appears the weekly series slowly dwindled in support over the subsequent months and was quietly discontinued with no public statements we have been able to find. Bear in mind, we can not accept full credit or responsibility for the station abandoning “Hot or Not,” but we’re still smiling.* Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Harter, 1998; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Impett, Schooler, and Tolman, 2006; Major, Barr, & Zubek, 1999; McConnell, 2001; Polce-Lynch, Myers, & Kilmartin, 1998; Roberts & Gettman, 2004; Slater and Tiggemann, 2002; Strelan & Hargreaves, 2005; American Pediatric Association, 2010.