Extensive research goes on here at Mental Health News Radio. We are consistently on the lookout for voices of advocacy and education around issues that have a strangle hold on mental health. Shadia Duske’s article Toxic Culture 101: Understanding the Sexualization of Women made it’s way to our office and we reached out to the author to see if she’d be willing to discuss this topic further. Thankfully Shadia made herself available and we were pleasantly surprised to learn about her extensive work as a behavioral health practitioner, business owner, and her research in women’s studies.
The objectification and sexualization of women is actually escalating in our culture. The negative impact this increase is having on women and men is driving us into a state of mental illness. Join Shadia and Kristin as they discuss what is happening, what we can do to lesson the impact, and quite possibly be models for positive change.
I have worked in the field of mental health since 2004 and founded Luna Counseling Center almost 6 years ago where I developed a team of therapists. I have worked with multiple populations over the years including adolescent females and adult male sex offenders. Luna Counseling Center works with a variety of issues and concerns, though we do specialize in reproductive mental health. We deal with the gut wrenching experiences of pregnancy and early infant loss, infertility, perinatal mood disorders (the most common of which is postpartum depression), birth trauma, new parenthood struggles, relationship issues connected to reproduction, high risk pregnancy, and anything else reproductive related. I am also certified in a therapeutic technique for treating trauma called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) as well as certified with Postpartum Support International to assess and treat Perinatal Mood Disorders.
You recently published an article on the Ms Magazine Blog about the sexualization of women in our culture. Can you tell us about your interest in feminist issues? (Shadia’s full article is available via PDF. Email us here for a copy.)
Part of my passion around knowing people and truly seeing them has always involved wanting to understand the world around them—the context in which they operate. It isn’t enough for me to know how my clients see the world; I also need to know how the world sees them—and the effects that can have on a person. Very early on in my own life I began to identify experiences I was having that males around me weren’t. I had to think about what outfits I was wearing to a party and the “message” the outfit might send. My male friends never had to think about the way they dressed being a safety issue. I had to think twice about walking alone to my car in an empty parking lot at night in a way my male friends didn’t. I always had a nagging feeling of being on display somehow. For as long as I can remember, I have received subtle and not so subtle messaging all around me that my physical appearance and my sexuality was somehow connected to my value. I started to notice similar threads within the stories of my clients which seemed to relate to gender inequality and objectification of women. Working with reproductive mental health highlights these issues. Women’s bodies become focused on in a different way. Women begin to question what it really means to be a woman if they can’t create a baby or if their body no longer looks “sexy enough?” I was stunned by the number of women who lost their babies in pregnancy and talked about their “baby weight” being hard not only because it was a reminder of the baby they lost but because they were now lost as women—not being able to mother a child and no longer fitting cultural beauty norms of having an hour-glass figure. They felt like failures. Then there are the women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, a job that is devalued in society, while the moms who choose to work outside of the home are viewed as being bad moms who “shouldn’t have children if they’re making someone else raise them.” Every mom I have encountered within my practice, including myself, experiences this constant underlying “mommy guilt” regardless of the decisions we make around parenting. Very few fathers I have encountered experience the same sort of guilt. Dads can go right back to work and still be considered wonderful fathers and be valued in society. I don’t want to imply that fathers do not have their own struggles and pressures. They definitely do, but they tend to have a different flavor. There are pressures and struggles I see placed on both men and women as a result of a culture that still has a long way to go towards gender equality.
I forgot my lunch one day and had to get a sandwich from the shop across the street of my office. I caught myself contemplating if I should walk across the street and risk the possibility of re-experiencing the scene that occurred the last time I did that—when a male driver leaned out the window of his red Chevy truck and yelled, “Ride my cock, baby!” I opted instead to drive my car, where there would be less risk of having to feel on display. It was this drive across the street that made me feel sad—really sad—about our culture. I felt like the issue of women being objectified and sexualized ALL AROUND US ALL THE TIME goes unnoticed because of how common it is. I felt like I wanted to highlight it somehow—show it for what it really is. I wanted people to finally see in a very real way what has been right in front of them all along. I wanted to show my clients that there is nothing wrong with their bodies—there is something wrong with the value or lack of value the culture is attaching to their bodies. I wanted to expose the disease. I spent months taking pictures with my smart phone of images portraying women in an objectifying and sexualized way. I didn’t have to go out of my way or drive anywhere special to get his footage. It was EVERYWHERE. I captured images on my way to work, at the hair salon, in doctors’ offices. I just lived my normal everyday life—but with awareness…and a camera. I also dove into research on this topic and ended up writing a 9,000 word paper illustrating my findings and exploring some of my experiences personally and professionally. I ended up having to cut my paper down to 1,000 words for the Ms. Magazine Blog, focusing on the highlights. It was hard to let go of a lot of material, but in the end I felt like the message still came through and in a way that could be accessible to anyone.
When you did your research, what were some of your findings when it comes to changes in quantity and quality of sexualized images of women we are seeing?
We are definitely seeing a rise in the number of images that depict women in sexualized ways. Sociologists at the University of Buffalo reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades. In the 1960’s, 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers were sexualized while in the 2000’s, 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women were sexualized. (Melker, 2013). There has been a recent shift in which women are being shown in more sexually aggressive positions where they appear to be powerful and in control, but research has shown us that this makes no difference in the impact on society. The focus is still her sexuality and appearance. We are also seeing younger and younger girls on display. I came across a quote by Melker (2013), a journalist: “In a 2011 photo spread for French Vogue, models stretched and slinked on an array of exotic animal furs. Their bodies were covered in jewels. Their faces were flush with rouge. They stared seductively into the camera. Nothing about these scenes would be out of the ordinary in the haute fashion magazine, except that in this case, the models were as young as 10 years old” (para. 1). We are also seeing more breastaurants, a type of restaurant chain with an emphasis on the young attractive waitresses who are wearing incredibly revealing uniforms. Berman (2015), a journalist for the Huffington Post, said, “Sales at the Tilted Kilt, Twin Peaks, and Brick House, casual eateries featuring scantily clad waitresses, have grown at a double-digit pace over the last year, according to projections from Techomic, a food market research firm” (para. 3). This problem is truly an epidemic that is slowly infesting our culture.
In your article you touch on the effects a culture that sexualizes and objectifies women has on men. Can you go into a little more detail about that?
I actually believe that there are incredible, though different, pressures on men as a result of gender inequality and the phenomenon of the sexualization of females in our culture. So many of my male clients are taught to be strong and to disconnect from emotions. Sometimes they admit how envious they are that the women around them are given unspoken permission to cry. Men are also dehumanized by a society that sexualizes women. Indirectly, this sends a message that men are incapable of controlling themselves and unable to experience healthy human connection beyond sex. When interviewed, Kristen Colby, the senior director of marketing for the Twin Peaks chain breastaurant, said, “Men are simple creatures and so you don’t have to get too crazy to get them in the door,” adding that all it takes is an ice cold beer, sports on TV, and beautiful girls (Berman, 2015, para. 7). This creates a dumbed-down image of men—unevolved and uninterested in real human connection. In actuality, most of my male clients feel a longing for deeper human connection and don’t quite understand why it is so challenging for them.
You talk specifically about the harmful effects of pornography use on both men and women. What is so harmful about pornography?
The vast majority of pornography is an amplified version of the world around us where women are presented as sexual objects and men are presented as subjects. Women in pornography are being objectified as they are presenting a very narrow and limited fantasy of an image geared towards another’s sexual pleasure. Before I get into discussing the harmful effects, I think it is important to look at how common pornography use is. The pornography industry generates $13 billion per year in the United States alone ($100 billion worldwide) (Ropelato, 2007)–producing bigger business than professional football, basketball, and baseball combined. Research has shown that male partners’ use of pornography is related to women experiencing body shame, eating disorders, and other mental health issues (Tylka & Kroon Van Diest, 2015, p. 81). Porn use not only impacts female partners, but impacts men too. According to Dines, Anti-Pornography Campaigner, “the earlier men use porn […] the more likely they are to have trouble developing close, intimate relationships with real women. Some of these men prefer porn to sex with an actual human being.” (Bindel, 2010, para. 4). One study showed that higher amounts of consumption of explicit materials among husbands leads to more adjustment problems in marriage and poorer relationship quality (Muusses et al., 2014). Porn use also affects men physically. We are seeing growing numbers of men experiencing erectile dysfunction at earlier ages. One survey of 28,000 Italian men discovered that excessive consumption of porn, beginning at age 14, and daily consumption in their early to mid-20s, desensitized men to even the most extreme images, resulting in erectile dysfunction (Mann, 2014). It is easy for me to see the psychological and relational harm that regular porn use can have in people’s lives when I look at the numbers of clients I see who bring this topic up in therapy. I do think there is a very small percentage of pornography that challenges standard beauty norms and gender roles, but this is not the type of pornography that is easily accessible and commonly viewed.
You mention a term called self-objectification in your article. What exactly does that mean?
Sexual objectification of females contributes to mental health problems and affects women via two main paths. The first path involves overt and direct sexually objectifying experiences. The second path, however, is indirect and involves women’s internalization of [sexually objectifying] experiences or self-objectification. In other words, women internalize this outsider perspective of how they are viewed and begin to self-objectify by treating themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance. If a woman is being told by her society that her value lies in the way she looks and how “sexy” she is, she begins to emphasize these attributes and display them. She is searching for value and society is telling her how to achieve it. We are seeing a lot of this with the increase of social media. Adolescent females are posting sexualized images of themselves–Self-objectifying. Self-objectification manifests in a greater emphasis placed on one’s appearance attributes (rather than competence-based attributes) and in how frequently a woman watches her appearance and experiences her body according to others view it. Self-objectification can increase body shame from the measurement of oneself against the unrealistic cultural standards (Szymanski et al., 2011).
In your article, you talk about Eurocentric beauty standards and how you were personally impacted growing up Middle Eastern. Can you talk more about what it was like for you personally to grow up Middle Eastern in a culture that values Eurocentric ideals?
I remember growing up feeling like I was “almost pretty enough.” I remember as a young girl only drawing pictures of blonde blue-eyed princesses and dreaming of being able to change my coloring. “If only I had lighter skin and eyes, I could be pretty.” There was always this idea in the back of my mind that if just a few things were different, then I would fit. I went to a school where I stood out as being the darkest. I had blond stepsisters. I remember one of my stepsisters telling me once that my skin was the color of poop. I wore long sleeves in the summer to try to stay lighter. I tried to scrub the brown out. My friends called me “Shadia Arabia.” There was never a time in my life when I felt like the world really believed that dark skin was pretty—that Middle Eastern was good. Even within our Arabic culture, all our relatives raved about the token green-eyed Arab child that was someone’s cousins’ niece. When I got older, I started to obsess about other Middle Eastern characteristics I had—including my nose. In the longer version of my article I talk about how I googled “Middle Eastern Nose.” The first site that popped up was a plastic surgeon’s website who dedicated an entire webpage to the topic of “The Middle Eastern Nose” (Hubbard Plastic Surgery & Skin Enhancement, 2015). According to the clinic’s site, “There clearly are a number of nasal characteristics found in Middle Eastern populations that encourage patients to seek some changes. Board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Thomas Hubbard can use advanced rhinoplasty techniques to help Virginia Beach patients with Middle Eastern features improve the size and shape of their nose, as well as the general appearance of their face” (Hubbard Plastic Surgery & Skin Enhancement, 2015, para. 1). The page goes on to explain specific characteristics of “The Middle Eastern Nose” such as a “significant nasal hump” or a “wide or bulbous tip.” They were describing my nose. I was reading about how my ethnicity could be “fixed,” like it was something broken. I don’t blame Dr. Hubbard for his website or for the surgeries he performs. He is offering a sought after service. It really makes me wonder, though, why this service is so sought after. Is it because there is something wrong with my appearance or is it because there is something wrong with our society that believes there is something wrong with my appearance? The Eurocentric standards of beauty exclude women who are of color or have ethnic features, but the reality is that they exclude even most women who are Caucasian too. Most of the images we see are airbrushed and pictures of ultra-thin models who don’t look like most women. I think this issue is just a bit more amplified and pronounced for women of color.
In the first part of your article you question whether you would rather be the woman who gets whistled at or the one who doesn’t. What did you mean by this?
I am shedding light on how our culture sets up all women to be objectified whether they fit the beauty norms or not. In both scenarios appearance is still tied to value and in both instances a woman suffers. Women who do not fit the norms may feel invisible, which is also a form of objectification. It is just that they are the discarded objects, tossed aside, unimportant. I think that is why we see self-objectification happen. Many women are terrified of invisibility. If value for women is tied to physical appearance then many women have a preference to be the object that is desired, wanted. There are several studies that show us that men’s worth tends to be linked to competence and career. According to one such study, “Men were predominantly judged in terms of their social and financial success and ambition, qualities that are associated with rationality, rather than the body. Women, however, have always been judged on their physical appearance” (Jung- Whan de Jong, 2009, p. 8). Even though there are pressures that come for men related to where society places their value, they don’t have to worry about becoming invisible when they get wrinkles. When a woman ages, she loses her value. When she fits the beauty norms, she is being valued, but only for something superficial—for the object she is rather than the person she is.
At the end of your article you bring in some hope for the future. Can you speak a little more to the possibilities for change?
It all starts with awareness—being brave enough to see what is right in front of us. If we keep going on as though this phenomenon is okay just because it is so “normal,” then nothing will ever change. There was a time when slavery in this country was considered normal too. We have to come together and question the “normal.” We have to stop seeing men as heartless creatures who are only interested in sex and women’s bodies. We have to stop catering to that notion. When it no longer works for advertising to sell products with sultry objectifying images of women, then they will start to do something different. This is already starting to happen. There is new research which indicates that in fact “brands advertised using sexual ads are evaluated less favorably than brands advertised in nonsexual ads” (Lull & Bushman, 2015, p. 1033). In the same study they also found that as the sexual content in the ads increased in intensity, participants’ memory, attitudes towards brand, and buying intentions decreased. Some companies and brands are getting this. Dove launched The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (Russell, 2014; Dove, 2015). Dove has made it their mission to portray real women with real bodies in their advertising, showing all shapes, ages, sizes, and colors. There is also the Always’ LikeaGirl campaign demonstrating female empowerment. One of their ads challenges the notion that to “throw like a girl” is somehow a bad thing (Russell, 2014). The Sheryl Sandberg led organization released a video encouraging girls to aim for leadership positions, letting go of the fear of gender discrimination (Russell, 2014). GoldieBlox, toy startup, told girls in an ad they don’t have to play princess—they can play engineer and inventor (Russell, 2014). Another prime example of a company whose mission is to promote images of real women in non-sexualized poses is Dear Kate, a women’s underwear company (Dear Kate, 2015). Another example is Lena Dunham who presents an image of being a real woman in her acting and screenwriting career. Dunham offers an authentic perspective of female sexuality, owning her body and sexuality rather than offering it as an object for the consumption of others. There are pioneers in the movement towards shifting the way women are presented in our culture, but they are still the exception to the rule. It is my hope that one day in my lifetime it will be the rule that changes. As we become more aware of this issue, we can have an increased ability to think more actively about the ramifications of a purchase we make, a website we click on, a restaurant we go to, or even a comment we make. If we are the ones telling the media what we want, then maybe it is time we start thinking more clearly about what it is we all really want. I believe we all want a culture where we can feel safe and authentic and valued just because we are human.
Shadia Duske, MA, LPC, NCC is a Licensed and Certified Psychotherapist in Denver, Colorado. She has worked in the field of mental health since 2004, counseling a variety of populations including children with special needs, adolescent females in a residential setting, and adult male sex offenders. She founded Luna Counseling Center in 2010 which works with a variety of concerns, though focuses on reproductive mental health including perinatal loss, perinatal mood disorders, infertility, birth trauma, high risk pregnancy, pregnancy after loss, new parenthood issues, abortion, teen pregnancy, and relationship struggles related to reproduction. Shadia is also certified in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a therapy technique used predominantly to treat trauma. In addition, she is certified in the Assessment and Treatment of Perinatal Mood Disorders with Postpartum Support International. Her style of counseling is a collaborative one, focused on helping her clients to gain a sense of empowerment. She works from an adapted depth model with an emphasis on increasing insight and awareness as well as strengthening one’s relationships and support system. She is not only concerned with what is happening within the client, but within the overall system the client is operating within as she works to see the bigger picture. There is also a focus on one’s experience in the present moment and dealing with practical daily obstacles. Shadia uses a variety of therapeutic techniques in addition to talk therapy, including art therapy, creative writing exercises, EMDR, guided meditation and other experiential exercises. She has learned that sometimes talking alone is not enough to be able to fully comprehend and process experiences.
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