13 November 2018Last updated


Sexuality, empowerment and the changing female archetype

We look at empowerment and sexuality over the years

By Charlene Naidoo
7 Mar 2016 | 12:03 pm
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 1 of 2
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 2 of 2

Two years ago a guy was chatting with a friend about online dating. He insisted that women had it much easier on dating sites. She disagreed. As a challenge, he decided to pose as a woman on a dating site. With the friend’s permission, he created a profile using her picture, clicked “interested in long-term/short-term dating” and awaited the responses.

Two hours later, he logged off, deleted his profile and conceded defeat. On the Reddit website female forum, he recounts his harrowing experience: “Within 20 minutes, it went from polite greetings to ‘no strings attached’ messages, with guys asking me to watch them on camera, or meet. When I said I wasn’t interested in no-strings-attached sex, the conversations quickly turned nasty. At the end of two hours I shut down the profile and was left with a bad taste in my mouth at the whole experience.”

For the random guy who decided to walk two hours in the average female’s shoes, this may have indeed been a crash course in female objectification.

For millions of women this is a steady force-fed diet.

Maybe it was Eve in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps it was ancient Greek medical theory which theorised that women’s bodies were “cool, moist, and spongy” – a defective vessel inferior to the male form (hot, dry, compact). It could simply be that whether you believe in evolution or creation, the history of women is also the history of objectification, peppered throughout the past, bleeding into the present.

Centuries ago, black women were enslaved on ships and forced to have sex with their owners. In recent decades consumerism and media positioned women as literal objects. Ads, songs, movies – practically anything that could be “consumed” – did brisk business with imagery and messaging that reduced women to their aesthetic appeal.

In the “fourth wave” the tide, it seems, has turned. Today a young girl sits in a room, equipped with a smartphone and an internet connection. A few clicks later, her body and esteem are transferred to a digital world where the objectification continues: with one vital difference. The power dynamic has shifted.


If you have ever felt that the media, your environment, family, culture or even a stranger has suggested in any way that your looks and sexual appeal were central to your value – you have the dubious honour of having been sexually objectified. You and millions of other women.

Wrapped up in a fancy bow, it is known as the commodification of females. The literal and figurative “selling” of an idea of what a woman should look like, and how she should behave to be pleasing to the male gaze.

Objectification purports that control rests in the eye of the gazer while empowerment is all about making the choice for oneself. That selfie you just posted? If you did so for your enjoyment and pleasure first and foremost – that is empowerment.

What might still be worth considering, however, is if we are again being sold short.

In her 1984 book, Where the Girls Are, American writer Susan Douglas (a little ahead of her time, clearly), discussed the mass of contradictions that exist for women. “The media imagery we grew up with was filled with mixed messages about what women should and should not do.” Nor does it help, she writes, that this cacophony of messages has made us the “cultural schizophrenics we are today, women who rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be…”

Recently, Hugh Hefner, he of the Playboy empire fame, was asked on an American news programme if he objectifies women. His answer: “Women are sex objects. That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts.”

Hold your infuriation. It gets worse. One of the female anchors laughed and responded, “Well, women… we like to be looked at that way sometimes.”

Just how much has changed then? Are we now simply exploiting ourselves?

Douglas’s theory has legs when held up to scrutiny. The hashtag #femalepower brings up just over 25,000 mentions on Instagram – a paltry figure considering that Instagram counts over 400 million people as active users. It is somehow unsurprising that amongst even that tiny sample, the majority of images tagged in the name of #femalepower are body-centric.

It is symptomatic, agrees Dubai-based clinical psychologist, Dr Valeria Risoli, of how women feel that they need to objectify themselves to have an impact and be liked by others; thinking that in this way they will prove their value.

If female disenfranchisement is on its way out the door, it is certainly taking the scenic route. Last year the Women’s Media Center in America reviewed over 1,300 media stories about reproductive issues. The astonishing takeaway? More than 50 per cent of the stories were written by men. Talk about “mansplaining” taken to new and disturbing heights.

It certainly does nothing to discourage the notion that men, like the ancient Greek medical fraternity, are still dominating the discourse on women, their nether regions and all their complicated glory.


On the flip side, the fourth wave school of thought stands by female empowerment in all iterations.

A recent study on music videos by the University of Arizona focused on the sexual objectification of girls and women in the media. The results were surprising, says Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, an associate professor of communication at the university. She expected to find music videos rife with images of men objectifying women. Instead she found that female artists were “self-sexualising”.

Feminists applaud the turn of events, while acknowledging there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Self-sexualising for one woman might be objectification to another. What is clear, however, is the importance of owning the narrative – but the lines remain blurred and many wonder where the tangents collide.

At the 2014 Emmy Awards for instance, actress Sofia Vergara was (literally) placed on a pedestal as part of a skit where she rotated on the platform in her tight dress and much was made of her curves.

Predictably, this raised the ire of many women. Yet Vergara herself brushed off the idea that the stunt was exploitative. “I think it’s absolutely the opposite. It means somebody can be hot and also be funny and make fun of herself.”

Her body. Her choice. Her power. If she likes it, we love it, right?

Except there are still tricky rules to navigate. If you are happy to objectify your body for the male gaze, aren’t you still playing into the societal definition of objectification?

“There is nothing wrong in embracing and showing off our sexuality,” concedes Dr Risoli, “as long as it does not become offensive to others or jeopardise ourselves.”

She acknowledges the fault lines and contradictions the issue raises. “Most women do enjoy receiving a compliment, attracting the attention of others… unfortunately it is a deep problem if this becomes the only way to get attention and ‘respect’ from men. This can happen when women are insecure about themselves and not fully aware of other abilities that should be highlighted instead of focusing on the superficial.”

There are implications for children as well. Children, we know, learn what they see, what they are taught and what they are exposed to. How do we impart the right messages to them?

Society often portrays women as puppets, says Dr Risoli, with the resulting message to young girls being: It is not important to be intelligent. “Rather, it is better to be beautiful, sexy, and attractive. This will bring you success, fame and wellbeing. This is the wrong message for children.” She stresses the importance of women owning their sexuality while valuing intelligence, emotional maturity and social awareness.

“Body objectification in young girls can lead to developing severe issues like body anxiety,” cautions Dr Risoli. “Try to minimise this attention and focus on the cognitive aspects of being. Young girls who are too concerned about their appearance may easily develop eating disorders and other related mental disorders.” There is also the risk of girls becoming sexually active at a young age when exposed to over-sexualised behaviour and imagery in their environments.


The heartening news, however, is that we are making incredible progress in the name of female empowerment. This is through, despite, and perhaps because of the swirling morass of complications that the issue presents. This year for instance, toymaker Mattel (in a long-overdue move) introduced three new body shapes for Barbie. In a store near you, Barbie is now tall, petite or curvy. It may have taken a few decades but it is promising that consumerism is finally moving away from unrealistic imagery and acknowledging shifting body ideals and current demographics.

Amongst the most encouraging overtures to this new wave of female empowerment are the winds of change in advertising – traditionally one of the most problematic formats of female objectification. American beer brand Miller Coors launched its new ad campaign last year, swapping typical bikini-clad models for women scaling walls, running races and white water rafting. Considering that women have been identified as the world’s most powerful consumers, it is gratifying that at long last, the seeds of empowerment are blossoming, bud by bud...

Waves of change


Wave 1

19th/early 20th Century

In the UK and US. Focused on the promotion of equal contract and property rights for women and the resistance to chattel marriage and “ownership” of married women by their husbands.


Wave 2


Continuation of the work from Wave 1, concerned with issues of equality and ending discrimination.


Wave 3

Early 1990s

Came about as a response to the lack of effective change from Wave 2. Focused on redefining issues of femininity and questions of gender roles due to social conditioning.

By Charlene Naidoo

By Charlene Naidoo