Instagram is heaving with photos of women and young girls accentuating their curves, lips, breasts and bums. But why do we feel the need to present our sexiest selves on social media? Well, because posting hot photos of ourselves is empowering, naturally. Nowadays, women can be CEOs, builders, pornstars, single and unmarried mothers — and all without fear, shame or guilt. This is the freedom Friedan and Greer were fighting for fifty years ago.

It seems then, that the 21st-Century woman has almost finished unshackling herself from the male gaze, the patriarchal judgment, oppression and standard-setting, by setting her own standards: Right?

Hooked on Sexy

The reality is that the tendency towards self-sexualisation continues to reduce women’s value (quantifiable via likes) to sexual objects. The net result is women and girls feeling bad about themselves. The same argument that says women shouldn’t have to adjust how they dress just because some men can’t control themselves is also deployed to justify posting provocative, sexualised photos and videos online. But this misses the point. Of course women have the right to do whatever they please concerning their bodies. What I am proposing is a serious re-evaluation of the inevitable outcome of this culture of sexual exhibitionism.

According to one research paper testing the effects of sexualisation, exposure to sexualised images of women has dire social and psychological consequences, including: ‘higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women.’ Is this a case of one step forward and two steps back, then?

The discourse surrounding the sexualisation of women in the media has been rife for some time. In 2017, the Daily Mail’s controversial ‘Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it!’ front page feature was denounced as ‘sexist’ and ‘offensive.’ The critics argued this should not be confounded with the choice to self-sexualise on social media. And yet, both types of objectifying portrayals — regardless of who is doing the portraying — feed sexist attitudes and ultimately contribute to the dehumanisation of women.

Why self-sexualise?

Less frequently discussed, is our natural, human hankering for validation which underpins self-sexualisation on social media. You can dress it up as empowerment, but social media works by addicting us to the fleeting dopamine hit we get when our pictures garner likes and comments. It is meticulously designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities. Posting sexy photos reduces our worth to our sex appeal. We invariably become dependent on a positive response to feel worthy. Moreover, the actresses, models and ‘influencers’ who set the tone tend to have classically hourglass figures, clear skin and full lips — often owing to medical or digital enhancement. And the result? Scores of women and teenage girls feel stabs of envy, insecurity and self-loathing as their minds compute the beguiling and addictive images on their screens. Scores of men and teenage boys, on the other hand, are aroused by these sexy displays and internalise their objectifying message. Last but not least, scores of lonely trolls hunched behind their screens, pepper the comments sections with potentially destructive negativity.

What’s a girl to do …?

Women can and should express themselves sexually — just preferably not on social media. I recently did my own lingerie photoshoot using the timer on my camera. I enjoyed myself immensely. I felt feminine and powerful and confident. But the photoshoot was for me. And that’s what made it empowering. Even though I’m sometimes tempted, I don’t post photos that accentuate my body on social media because I realise the reason for doing so lies in a craving for approval and validation. Posting sexy photos might make you feel personally empowered, and maybe you don’t even care whether you get three or 300 likes, but the choice to self-sexualise still contributes to a poisonous culture.

In her book, My Body, Emily Ratajkowski writes about how being so ludicrously good-looking is a blessing and a curse. The actress, model and influencer says she finds ‘power’ in her ability and choice to post sexually provocative pictures of herself. ‘By capitalizing on my sexuality I have money,’ says Ratajkowski. She also admits that ‘the whole damn system is corrupt and anyone who participates is just as guilty as I am.’ Her alluring appearance is a valuable commodity, and it is a lucrative market. Yet there is a clear contradiction in Emily’s narrative. She is not just a ‘participant’ but a perpetuator. Ratajkowski has the right to feel empowered, but she also has to look beyond her own experience. With 30 million followers, she can’t afford to be solipsistic.

Therein lies the issues with empowerment; it is invariably framed too individualistically. What is missing from My Body is recognition of the impact of Ratajkowski’s sexual exhibitionism on the millions of women and girls who idolise her figure. Emily’s book expresses a powerful feminist critique of the objectification and exploitation of women’s beauty, but this grates against the inescapable fact that she herself is a vehicle for sexism.

The ballooning suicide rate among girls and young women is a telling feature of the times. Despite the long-term downward trend in the overall rate, suicides in the UK among females aged between 10 and 24 have almost doubled in the last seven years. My sense is that this can be attributed, at least partly, to the explosion of Instagram, TikTok and influencer culture. For many women and girls, social media’s implicit message that sex appeal is a valuable commodity is confusing, damaging, and very far from empowering.

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