Last week, I happened upon the following, rather disturbing headline: Experts Say Selena Gomez Needs to be Sexier. Now, I have no idea who Selena Gomez is. But apparently she’s a young starlet trying to make it in Hollywood with a good-girl image. And that just will not fly.
Sexualization of young women, and the myriad mental health problems that come along with it, is no doubt a major problem (outlined in a recent APA report). However, an excellent critique of the report challenged the assumption that sexualization is necessarily harmful, and that’s where I think the meat is.
When I think about sexualization in the context of social relationships, I notice an often-overlooked function of sexualization. Namely, that sexualizing others affirms and protects our sense of personal integrity, morality, and adequacy.
Let’s take a classic good girl: Danny Zuko’s heartthrob, Sandy Olsson (from Grease, obvi). Sandy starts out as the perfect “Sandra Dee,” but then surprises everyone by showing up to graduation in high heels, teased hair, a leather jacket, and pants so tight they literally had to be sewn onto her body. No one has ever sexed it up better than Sandy.
For the most part, Danny doesn’t push Sandy to be sexier. Rizzo does. So why would Rizzo care? I propose that Rizzo cares because Sandy challenges her sense of self. Or more specifically, Sandy’s ability to abstain from carnal pleasures makes Rizzo feel guilty for all the things she does indulge in—premarital sex, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.
Rizzo’s mocking solo aims to build support among her friends to affirm that having sex, smoking, and drinking are okay. However, her tone also assumes Sandy’s judgment (likely incorrectly), revealing Rizzo’s own insecurity. Like most of us, Rizzo judges herself for wanting to do the things she “shouldn’t,” and wants others to validate her choices. (If you want to see this in action, watch a dinner table where one person wants to drink and no one else does).
Later in the story, we hear Rizzo’s struggle to maintain a positive sense of self with her bad-girl image. But we also hear Sandy’s struggle to let go of her high necklines and ponytailed hair because she feels too “scared and unsure.” Each needs a little bit of the other.
This highlights an important point: sexualization is not necessarily bad. It can also be liberating.
Unfortunately, the lusty side of sexuality is still seen as part of our ‘dark side.’ Especially for women, this has strong cultural roots, many of which trace back to religious teachings that moralize women’s sexuality. In this context, Sandy’s purity is rooted in insecurity just as strongly as Rizzo’s indulgence is, though both are striving to accept their sexuality. Both are looking for balance.
So perhaps our wholesome starlet, Selena Gomez, is pushed toward sexualization because we want other people to have “dark sides” too. We want them to indulge with us, or for us. We cannot be perfect, no matter how much we might try, so perhaps we feel guilty when the Sandra Dees of the world suggest that perfection is an attainable, or desirable, reality.
Seeing balance (or extremity) in others can normalize our own drives and affirm our humanity. Hopefully we eventually get comfortable with our own blend — a little bit Sandy and a little bit Rizzo, in whatever proportions we choose.